Diabolo: devil / yo-yo

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The diabolo, sometimes called a Chinese yo-yo, is a two-headed top controlled by a string manipulated by two sticks, one attached to each end.  It is popular among jugglers.

Diabolo, commonly misspelled as diablo, was formerly also known as "the devil on two sticks" (Juggling Wiki).

In this post, I am concerned primarily with language issues and will not attempt to disentangle (if you've ever played much with a yo-yo, you'll be sensitive to this term in the present context) the evolution, relationship, and nature of the diabolo and the yo-yo.

I will begin by providing a few more or less random historical and cultural notes (the history of the diabolo / yo-yo is vastly complex), then move on to etymological observations.

"Earliest Record of Diabolo in the Chinese Classic – 帝京景物略"

International Jugglers Association (4/26/23)

Dìjīng jǐngwù lüè. Juǎn èr. Chūn chǎng”/ Liú Dòng, Yú Yìzhèng hézhù (1635 nián):  Yángliǔer huó, chōu tuóluó. Yángliǔer qīng, fàngkōng zhong. Yángliǔér sǐ, tī jiànzi

《帝京景物略.卷二.春場》/ 劉侗、於奕正合著 (1635年


“Whipping the top in the time willows revive; Playing the diabolo in the time willows green; Kicking the shuttlecock in the time willows wither.” – Imperial Capital Guidebook (1635 A.D.), Volume 2/ (translated by Mark Tsai)

A note on what makes the diabolo so enchanting:

A large variety of tricks are possible with the diabolo, including tosses, and various types of interaction with the sticks, string, and various parts of the user's body. Multiple diabolos can be spun on a single string.

Like the Western yo-yo (which has an independent origin), it maintains its spinning motion through a rotating effect based on conservation of angular momentum.

The Diabolo is derived from the Chinese yo-yo encountered by Europeans during the colonial era. However, the origin of the Chinese yo-yo is unknown. The earliest mention of the Chinese yo-yo is in the late Ming dynasty Wanli period (1572–1620), with its details well recorded in the book Dijing Jingwulue by … Liu Tong. The book refers to Chinese yo-yos as "kong zhong" (simplified Chinese: 空钟; traditional Chinese: 空鐘; pinyin: kōng zhong; lit. 'air bell').

Chinese yo-yos have a longer axle with discs on either end, while the diabolo has a very short axle and larger, round cups on either end. Diabolos are made of different materials and come in different sizes and weights.

There are many names in the Chinese language for the Chinese yo-yo:

    • simplified Chinese: 扯铃; traditional Chinese: 扯鈴; pinyin: chě líng; lit. 'pull bell sound'
    • simplified Chinese: 响簧; traditional Chinese: 響簧; pinyin: xiǎng huáng; lit. 'sounds like a reed (instrument)'
    • Chinese: (抖)空竹; pinyin: dǒu kōng zhú; lit. '(shaking) sky bamboo'
    • simplified Chinese: 空钟; traditional Chinese: 空鐘; pinyin: kōngzhōng; lit. 'sky bell'

The first known mention of a diabolo in the Western world was made by a missionary, Father Amiot, in Beijing in 1792 during Lord Macartney's ambassadorship, after which examples were brought to Europe, as was the sheng (eventually adapted to the harmonica and accordion).

The name "diabolo" was coined by Belgian engineer Gustave Philippart, who developed the modern diabolo in the early twentieth century, although credit has also been given to Charles Burgess Fry (The Outdoor Magazine in 1906) or Fry and Philippart. The ODE gives the term's origin as from ecclesiastical Latin diabolus (devil) via Italian, reflecting the older name, "The devil on two sticks".

Strong derives the name from the Greek dia bolo, roughly meaning 'across throw': "In Greek, the term 'diaballo' [VHM:  Ancient Greek διαβάλλω], means to throw across. It comes from a combination of 'dia' meaning across or through (as in the diameter of a circle, a line that crosses circle), and 'bolla' or originally 'ballo' which means to throw…" However, Philippart's intention is clear in his 1905 patent, where he gives it the alternative French name Diable, "Devil". The term "loriot" was also used in England early in the twentieth century, as well as "rocket-ball". The earlier name "The devil on two sticks" is sometimes still seen, although nowadays this more often refers to another circus-based skill toy, the devil stick: "In time 'diabolo' was retained for the spinning version of the Chinese stick toy while the hitting version of the stick toy was rendered into English as the Devil Stick."

Philippart claimed Diabolo to be his invention. In reality, he had improved a Napoleonic toy, which in turn had originated long ago in China. However, Charles Parker acquired the U.S. license for the term diabolo in 1906, and the fad for the toy lasted until 1910 (caricatures of public figures with the toy made it to newspapers), when it was hurt greatly by a glut of unsold poor quality off-brand versions (costs ranged from one to eight dollars). The toy was even removed from the Parker Brothers catalogue, a rare occurrence (its two-year return in 1929 also failed).

An earlier occurrence of the fad, in Paris, is mentioned in Nature in 1893. The Wright brothers became enamored with the toy during a lull in a trip to France they had taken to market their Wright Flyer III airplane.


Somehow or other, "diabolo" is connected to "devil", and both ultimately derive from the notion of "throw across":

Old English deofol "a devil, a subordinate evil spirit afflicting humans;" also, in Christian theology, "the Devil, a powerful spirit of evil otherwise known as Satan," from Late Latin diabolus (also the source of Italian diavolo, French diable, Spanish diablo; German Teufel is Old High German tiufal, from Latin via Gothic diabaulus).

The Late Latin word is from Ecclesiastical Greek diabolos, which in Jewish and Christian use was "the Devil, Satan," and which in general use meant "accuser, slanderer" (thus it was a scriptural loan-translation of Hebrew satan; see Satan). It is an agent noun from Greek diaballein "to slander, attack," literally "to throw across," from dia "across, through" (see dia-) + ballein "to throw" (from PIE root *gwele- "to throw, reach").


From Middle English devil, devel, deovel, from Old English dēofol, dēoful, from earlier dīobul (devil), from Latin diabolus, ultimately from Ancient Greek διάβολος (diábolos, accuser, slanderer), also as "Satan" (in Jewish/Christian usage, translating Biblical Hebrew שָׂטָן(śātān)), from διαβάλλω (diabállō, to slander), literally “to throw across”, from διά (diá, through, across) + βάλλω (bállō, throw). The Old English word was probably adopted under influence of Latin diabolus (itself from the Greek). Other Germanic languages adopted the word independently: compare Saterland Frisian Düüwel (devil), West Frisian duvel (devil), Dutch duivel, duvel (devil), German Low German Düvel (devil), German Teufel (devil), Danish djævel (devil), Swedish djävul (devil) (older: djefvul, Old Swedish diævul, Old Norse djǫfull). Doublet of diable, diablo and diabolus.


Cf. "dialect" < Gk. dialektos ("talk; conversation; speech") < (dia ["across, between"] + legein ["speak"], hence "speak across"), which to me implies mutual intelligibility).

The term yo-yo obviously has a completely separate derivation than that for the diabolo:

yo-yo (n.)
1915, apparently from a language of the Philippines.  [VHM:  Most likely from Ilocano yóyo, or another Philippine cognate. (Wiktionary)] Registered as a trademark in Vancouver, Canada, in 1932, the year the first craze for them began (subsequent fads 1950s, 1970s, 1998). The toy itself is much older and was earlier known as bandalore (1802), a word of obscure origin, "but it was from American contact in the Philippines that the first commercial development was established" [Century Dictionary]. Figurative sense of any "up-and-down movement" is first recorded 1932. Meaning "stupid person" is recorded from 1970. The verb in the figurative sense is attested from 1967.


Be it a diabolo or a yo-yo, this devilishly difficult device is sure to make your head spin.


Selected readings

[h.t. David Landowne]


  1. David Marjanović said,

    April 29, 2023 @ 7:03 am

    German Teufel is Old High German tiufal, from Latin via Gothic diabaulus

    Why would Gothic be involved? Why not a loan directly from Latin into Rather Early Germanic? Then at least the West Germanic forms could be actual cognates of each other.

  2. Cirk R. Bejnar said,

    April 29, 2023 @ 3:06 pm

    I remembered a discussion of the issue in Don Ringe and Ann Taylor's The Development of Old English but it is rather less helpful than I hoped.

    Lat. diabolus 'devil' –> PWGmc *diubul (masc. a-stem) > OE dīoful, OF diōvel, OS diuƀal, OHG tiubil ~ tiufal (cf. Goth. diabaúlus);

    It is possible that these three words [i.e. angel, devil, & Greeks] through Gothic or some other East Germanic language. The -f- in OHG 'devil' does not fit, but it can be plausibly ascribed to folk etymolofy conecting the word with tiof 'deep'.

    Apologies if the formatting didn't make it through. I so seldom leave comments here, but Ringe is certainly a relevant and reliable source.

  3. cameron said,

    April 29, 2023 @ 9:20 pm

    I read this post in the morning, and then in the evening the word "diabolo" shows up in the New York Times crossword. I feel the lattice of coincidence closing in on me

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 30, 2023 @ 5:00 am

    Creepy, cameron!

    Thanks for telling us of your uncanny concatenation.

  5. Kenny Easwaran said,

    April 30, 2023 @ 1:22 pm

    I saw this post, and had just done the relevant New York Times crossword a few days ago, so I assumed that this post had been inspired by it!

  6. David Scott Deden said,

    May 5, 2023 @ 11:24 pm

    DM, is teufel also the source for Yiddish 'dreidel' (spinning top/dice)?

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