My four-year-old is currently a big fan of the seesaw. Or is it the teetter-totter? The tilt board? There are many names for this piece of playground equipment, all of which refer to what’s essentially a lever. Levers as machines let us do a lot of otherwise difficult work, although in the case of most playgrounds, the perfectly symmetrical arrangement of a seesaw actually makes things a bit tricky for a large adult and a small child. I do extra work to avoid launching my child thanks to our equal distance from the fulcrum, although there’s a chance that bit of physics is what got seesaws started in the first place.
With something as fundamental as a lever, it’s not easy to pin down the first time anyone decided they were fun to sit on. One line of thinking connects modern seesaws to 널뛰기, or neolttwigi, a device from Korea that dates back at least a few hundred years. A neolttwigi is like a low seesaw intended to launch someone in the air. One person jumps onto the empty side to boost their playmate straight up. The story is that this device was first developed so that young women could boost each other high enough to see over the walls surrounding their homes, although since then acrobatics and props like jump-ropes have been added to the mix.
Teetering, tilting and trembling
The various names for a seesaw may hold clues as well. Americans supposedly prefer the term “teeter-totter,” although those terms existed separately before being brought to the playground. Teeter is related to titter, which probably comes from an Old Norse word titra, which meant “to shake, shiver, totter or tremble,” which seems fairly appropriate. However, those definitions are fairly broad, which doesn’t help describe the exact device in question. French terms like balançoire only mean to balance, although the theory that seesaw is a bastardization of ci-ça (see-saw), which means “this-that” is at least more playful.
The most specific connections are based around the name seesaw and how it intersects with hard labor. Before engines sped everything up, sawyers were people who sawed logs and trees. For bigger jobs, two men would hold handles on either side of a large saw, lunging back and forth in an even rhythm to efficiently cut through the wood. Another variation was the pit-saw, where one sawyer was elevated above the other, sawing down at an angle. In either case, the work went better if the back-and-forth motion remained in sync, and so sawyers would sing or chant to coordinate their movement.
These songs introduced the term “see-saw” not for a specific meaning as much for rhythm. They turn up in print in the 1630s with phrases like “see-saw-sack a down” and eventually “See Saw, sacaradown, / Which is the way to London town?” in 1685. Playing on levers probably predates these chants, but the name seesaw made it to the playground by 1704. Kids may have been pretending to be sawyers, chanting along as they rocked up-and-down. While we’re not as familiar with two-man saws today, at the time it was probably a very descriptive term, especially compared to “equidistant class one lever.”
Source: See-saw by Michael Quinion, World Wide Words