Two short legs and a silly point: learn (about) English through cricket. Part 2: Origins

Posted by on April 02, 2009

© Duncan Noakes/ Fotolia.comFirst, a little history to set the scene. We think of cricket as a very ‘English’ game, and nowadays it’s mainly played in parts of the former British empire: Australasia, the Indian subcontinent, South Africa, and the Caribbean. But its history is more complex. In a recent novel, Netherland, the protagonist is a Wall Street trader who plays for a cricket club in the unlikely setting of New York City. We learn that ‘cricket was the first modern team sport in America’ and had been played there since the 1770s – declining in popularity only from the start of the 20th century.

The protagonist, Hans van den Broek, had grown up playing cricket in the Netherlands, where the game still has a reasonable following. By an odd coincidence, just months after Netherland was published, the world of cricket was rocked by the discovery that the game may have originated not (as we always thought) in the sheep fields of Kent and Sussex, but in Flanders – close to van den Broek’s homeland. The theory is that cricket was brought to England by Flemish weavers in the early 16th century, and the evidence for this is linguistic: the word cricket is now thought to be related to the Middle Flemish word krick, a staff or stick for leaning on – this being the object with which the ball was hit in an early version of the game. (Krick is also related to English words like crook – sense 3 in the Macmillan Dictionary – and crutch.) As in general English, a high percentage of cricket’s vocabulary has Germanic roots, and this is especially true of some of the game’s oldest terms.

It’s probably worth explaining the rudiments of the game at this stage. The two principal contenders are a bowler and batsman: the bowler hurls a ball towards the batsman, who is holding a bat (an implement for hitting the ball) and standing in front of a target called a wicket. The bowler’s aim is either to hit the wicket with the ball, or to get the batsman to hit the ball in the air – if the wicket is hit, or if the bowler or one of his teammates catches the airborne ball, that’s the end of the batsman: he is then said to be out (and until he is out, he is in). The batsman’s aim, on the other hand, is to stay in (by successfully guarding his wicket), and if possible to score points (called runs) by hitting the ball far enough to enable him to run from one end of the pitch to the other before anyone retrieves the ball. Simple!

The names of the basic actors and implements in cricket tell us a lot about its origins. The word wicket originally meant a small gate, for example on a sheep pen, and in the early days of cricket these gates would have been a good target for throwing the ball at. The modern wicket consists of three upright poles placed close together: these are called stumps – a vestige of an even earlier stage in which the target to aim at was a tree stump. We also talk about bowling the ball – even though it is thrown with an overarm action: again, this harks back to a time when the cricket ball was literally ‘bowled’ along the ground (as in tenpin bowling). And in many sports we refer to players scoring points, because in the early days of cricket, the batsman’s runs were counted by cutting (or ‘scoring’) marks into a piece of wood (see sense 3 of the verb score in the Macmillan Dictionary).

As in cricket, so in the language as a whole, the vocabulary we use today often started out meaning something else but has left traces of its earlier uses. The word meat, for example, is over a thousand years old, but it originally meant food of any kind. Though that meaning has disappeared from modern English, traces of it survive in phrases we still use: we say that something is meat and drink to someone or that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Or think of a word like loophole, which started life as the name for one of those narrow slits in a castle wall which arrows are fired through. When we ‘exploit a loophole’ (in a law or contract, for example), we find a ‘narrow opening’ that offers a means of avoiding a problem.

These are all aspects of language change, and are a good introduction to the notion of ‘polysemy’ – the fact that one word can develop several meanings – which we will explore in the next blog of this series.

Read part 1 or part 3.

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