Even if you’ve never been to an auction in person, you’ve heard what an auctioneer sounds like. Auctioneers appear in movies, TV shows and more, often because they sound, to be blunt, funny. This fast-talking way of selling goods has a name for it: auctioneer chant. Well, it has a few names; it’s also known as bid calling, the auction cry and the cattle rattle (a number of auctions are cattle auctions). Why do auctioneers use this chant, though, and how does it work? We broke down this odd linguistic phenomenon.
Breaking Down The Auctioneer Chant
If you watch the clip above, it may at first sound like complete gibberish. It should be noted, though, that this guy is a fast-talking champion, so he may be a tad faster than the average auctioneer. But even in the fastest of auctioneer chants, there’s a method to the murmur.
The most important pieces of information contained in the auctioneer chant are the two numbers: one that is the current bid, and one that is the amount someone would need to bid in order to become the highest bidder. If you heard “100” and “110” alternating, you would know $100 is the going rate, and $110 is what you need to put forward to become the leader. Even if you can’t understand anything else the bid caller above is saying, you can make out the numbers, and that’s all you really need to participate in the auction.
Everything else that’s said by the auctioneer is essentially filler. In fact, the rest of the terms to know are literally called “filler words.” There are any number of filler words that can appear, and it varies from auctioneer to auctioneer, but there are some common options. A full string of auctioneer chant might sound something like “10 dollar bid, 10 dollars, now 15, now 15, will you go 15, 15 dollar bid, 15 dollars, now 20, now 20, will you go 25, 25 dollar bid, now 30, now 30” and on and on. Then, when it seems like no one else is going, the auctioneer “closes the bidding” with something like the famous “Going once, going twice, sold!”
For a slightly more approachable intro to what an auctioneer really sounds like, you can also listen to the hit 1956 song (a hit by ’50s standards, at least), “The Auctioneer” by Leroy Van Dyke. Between a story of a young auctioneer coming of age, Van Dyke does show off some real auctioneering (and you can find the full lyrics here).
When you listen to enough of this, it makes sense why this is called a “chant.” There is something very chant-like and repetitive about it all. There’s plenty of variation between bid callers — especially among the professionals who like to add in their own style — but at its core, auctioneer chant is very formulaic.
Why Not Just Talk…Normally?
While auctioneering can often be skewered as some weird, funny thing, it’s not solely for entertainment. While nobody knows exactly where auctioneer chant comes from, it is distinctly North American. One theory is it comes from mid-19th century tobacco auctioneers who sold their goods in Virginia, and the chant spread from there. The style is still highly associated with the southern United States, and not all auctions use it. If you were to go to an art auction, you’re very unlikely to hear auctioneer chant. Those bid callers use a quieter, slower European style of selling items.
Auctioneer chant is, above all, efficient. Some auctioneers can sell over 100 items an hour, and it’s all thanks to this auctioning style that is always moving and constantly updating everyone in the room with the most current information. While electronic methods like eBay can outstrip human ability, the most prolific auctioneers are able to pull off impressive feats of mass sales.
How Do Auctioneers Learn The Chant?
At this point, you might be wondering, “Is there like a school where auctioneers learn how to talk like this?” And there are, in fact, many. The laws vary by state, but you may indeed need to get a specific license, which you can do through an accredited auctioneering school. Even if a license isn’t required, the National Auctioneers Association recommends attending classes as a way to get in the hours of practice you’ll need to be a professional.
Auctioneer schools aren’t all about the chant, though. There are many other skills required, including accounting, ethics and law. Those topics are a little less showy than the chant, so you can imagine why they’re not often represented in pop culture.
If you want to learn how to do the chant yourself and don’t want to go to school for it, you’re in luck. There are many resources online, like those put out by the Western School of Auctioneering. You can learn what exercises to do, which one liners to throw into the chant (“Money will do you no good where you’re going, you’d better spend it here today”) and, if you realize this is your life’s calling, how to become a bid caller yourself.