“Who dey! Who dey! Who dey think gonna beat dem Bengals? Noooobody.”
It’s the iconic rallying cry that echoes through the bars, streets and stadium in Cincinnati during Bengals season. A chant to unite the die-hard fans of this football franchise, whether the team is winning or losing — and, since the late 1980s, it’s mostly been losing.
But the Bengals are no longer the butt of a joke and the Queen City is ready to claim its Super Bowl crown.
As the Bengals prepare to take on the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood on Feb. 13 for Super Bowl LVI — an honor more than three decades in the making — the nation is once again captivated by our Midwestern city’s battle call, with broad speculation about its origin. While the question previously has been who they think will beat the Bengals (generally, that’s been most teams), the question now is who they think made “Who Dey.”
And, for all intents and purposes, it appears this beloved chant was spontaneously generated by Bengals fans, like a primal cheer rising up from the collective unconscious.
The Bengals first went to the Super Bowl in 1982. Historical accounts by local newspapers agree that while Who Dey fever overtook the city, with the phrase appearing on merch, memorabilia and beer cans, no one is sure about its exact genesis.
The Bengals former director of public relations, Al Heim, is quoted as saying the chant showed up in 1981/1982 when the team started winning. “We have no idea where it came from — it’s not ours. But I’ll tell you one thing, it has really been a great thing for us,” he said.
A Cincinnati Enquirer story from 1983 reports, “Some say (the chant) staggered out of the bars on Second Street. But others imbue it with even higher origins. It was hatched, they claim, by fermented fans in the red seats of Riverfront Stadium — a little high-level improvisation from some high, going-on-higher impresarios.”
The Enquirer piece then reports on the rumor that Who Dey is related to Hudepohl beer, or “Hudy,” as it’s colloquially known: “There are those who insist that long before it became the maniacal mantra of frenzied fans, it was part of the rhythmic hawking of stadium beer vendors.”
The urban legend goes that drunk Bengals fans adopted the shout of Hudy beer salesmen — “Hu-dy” — walking the aisles of Riverfront Stadium (where the team played from 1970 to 1999, until the advent of Paul Brown Stadium in 2000).
Hudepohl even capitalized on that association, creating special orange-and-black Bengals-themed “Hu-Dey” cans in 1982 (and again for the team’s Super Bowl run in 1989).
WEBN-FM disputes that claim, telling the Enquirer that they heard the chant earlier when the Bengals were losing in 1980.
Some credit the radio station with popularizing the full Who Dey anthem after WEBN Program Director Denton Marr grabbed some employees and recorded a version of it.
WEBN started playing their recording “repeatedly throughout the day beginning sometime in October, 1981,” reads the 1983 Enquirer article. The station kept playing it on the Bengals’ run up to Super Bowl XVI, adds a Cincinnati Post article from 1982. The assumption is it caught fire after that.
Then there’s the completely incorrect claim that Cincinnati appropriated Who Dey from the New Orleans Saints’ “Who Dat” chant.
In January, The Advocate, Louisiana’s largest newspaper, posted an editorial with the headline, “Our Views: Cincinnati’s ‘Who Dey’ Chant Is Stupid. Lets [sic] Loan Them Ours.” The paper writes, “’Who dey, who dey, who dey think gonna beat dem Bengals?’ sounds like a cheap knock-off of our more clever — and grammatically correct — Who Dat cheer.” The Advocate goes on to suggest that the New Orleans Saints could “loan” the Bengals “Who Dat” for the playoffs, implying that the Louisiana version is superior to Ohio’s. (Although we might not know where Who Dey comes from, there’s a whole convoluted and documented history of Who Dat and its origins in minstrel shows, so we’ll say no thanks to this offer.)
And while there’s no easy answer for how Cincinnati got its Who Dey, there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on: It is by and for the fans.
Who Dey was not born of some media blitz or contrived PR stunt. It rose up like a tidal wave, a call to arms sprung from the Cincy Jungle, crashing across the city and imbuing the populous with an indefatigable team spirit, no matter how many losing seasons they — and the Bengals — endured.
Who Dey is the heart and soul of Cincinnati fans, because every time, every game, who dey think gonna beat them Bengals?
The answer? Nobody.