Language Reports

Noble Sports

July 2018
 
After a succession of food and drink-based Word Stories, it might be time to turn our attention to some physical activity. Badminton, croquet and polo are all sports frequently associated with the English aristocracy, but their etymologies vary greatly, both in their origins and their complexity. While one is quite clearly of English stock, the other two have ostensibly foreign origins. However, closer analysis suggests that they may be more English than they appear. Read on for a selection of simple—and not-so-simple—Word Stories.
 

Badminton

Badminton is an English game whose ancestor was called battledore and shuttlecock, referring respectively to the racket and the projectile used in this game. It was played by British colonial officers in India in the nineteenth century, with the addition of a net and often renamed poona, after the city of Poona (now known as Pune). In the latter half of the nineteenth century, this modified version of the game was re-imported to Britain, and played notably at Badminton House, belonging to the Duke of Beaufort, in the town of Badminton, Gloucestershire. Initially known variously as poonaBadminton battledore and the game of Badminton, it became known simply as badminton.

Croquet

The spelling and pronunciation of the word croquet suggest a clear French origin. Indeed, both the name and the sport itself can ultimately be traced to France, but the connection is not as direct as it might appear.

The modern game of croquet was popularized in England in the 1850s by way of Ireland, where it developed from a large family of games known as “ground billiards”, which also includes the now-obsolete pall-mall and trucco, among others. This family of games has a long history in Europe, and probably first appeared in Ireland as a result of the Norman invasions.

The Norman French word croquet, meaning “hook”, presumably referred to the instrument used to strike the ball. It derives from the Old French croc, and ultimately from the Old Norse krokr “a hook or bent object”. It is the likely origin of the Irish term, which was first documented in 1834 (spelled crookey). In keeping with the game’s presumed French origins, English pronunciations of croquet always drop the final t, while older sources sometimes even used the accented spelling variant croquêt.

Contemporary croquet only became known in France after the immense popularity it had gained in England spread to other parts of Europe. The modern French word croquet is also used in reference to the game, but, contrary to appearances, this usage actually entered the language from English.

Polo

The game of polo comes from Central Asia, especially Persia, where it was an aristocratic sport and war training game. From Persia, it spread eastward during the Middle Ages and was adopted in China, Japan, Tibet and northern India. Travelling in these latter regions, the English cricketer and travel writer Godfrey Thomas Vigne (1801–1863) witnessed many games and published an enthusiastic account in 1842:

At Shirghur, in Thibet, I first saw the game of chaughán [the Persian name of polo] […]. It is in fact hockey on horseback. The ball, which is larger than a cricket ball, is only a globe made of a knot of willow wood, and is called in Thibeti pulu. (From Travels in Kashmir, Ladak, Iskardo, the countries adjoining the mountain-course of the Indus, and the Himalaya, north of the Panjab)

The Tibetan etymon proposed by Vigne would be more accurately linked to Balti Tibetan (spoken mainly in Pakistan and India).

The origin of the Balti noun is unclear, although the etymologists of the Oxford English Dictionary’s third edition have proposed an elegant hypothesis: pulu could well have been itself borrowed from… the English word ball! Were this proposition true, it would make polo a word of distant—and unforeseen—Germanic origin, rather than Tibetan.

The British were enthusiastic adopters of polo and members of the British Army began playing matches in Kashmir during the 1850s. The introduction of the word polo into English dates from this period.

Derived expressions polo ponywater polopolo shirt and polo neck are attested, respectively, from 1872 (in a Times classified ad), 1875 (“the hardy young officers who play water polo”), 1887 (“all Polo Shirts at reduced prices”) and 1929 (“practical sweaters with polo necks in plain and fancy stockinette”).

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