Saturday, 25 February 2012

On class, language and exclusion in sport

By about 1850 pedestrianism was, according to Neil Tranter in Sport, Economy and Society in Britain 1750-1914 (1998), ‘the most extensive working-class sporting interest’; when in 1866-7 the Amateur Athletic Club drew up its first rules for athletics it ‘specifically excluded mechanics, artisans and labourers from participation in an attempt to divorce amateur athletics from professional pedestrianism and preserve the former exclusively for the upper and middle classes’. The ‘mechanics clause’ caused significant antagonism between amateurs and professionals, which lasted well into the twentieth century.  In 1907 when the International Olympics Committee met to organise the London 1908 Games, the mechanics clause was cited in drawing up the rules for the rowing events, having been adopted by the Amateur Rowing Association in 1882. 

In 1846 the Lancaster Regatta organisers consulted with Bell’s Life as to the protocol of whether to admit a boat crewed by tradesmen; the response was that ‘tradesmen’ were acceptable so long as they were not ‘journeymen or mechanics’, in which case they were to be called ‘landsmen’, ‘to distinguish them from gentlemen amateurs and professional watermen.  If the oarsmen in question are master tradesmen the decision should stand; if journeymen or mechanics, they should be defaulted.’  ‘Landsmen’ was a term that had been in use for some years by that stage, to indicate someone whose normal employment was on land.  The Isleworth regatta in the same year had races for apprentices, landsmen, amateurs and watermen.  The discrimination increased from the 1870s when American and Canadian crews started to participate in British regattas, their amateur status being regularly challenged.  In 1874 the Bolton and Bingley Rowing Club was disqualified from the Agecroft Regatta when it was found that there were artisans in their crew.  The rules for the Henley Regatta in 1879 stated that ‘no person shall be considered an amateur oarsman or sculler who is or has been by trade or employment for wages, a mechanic, artisan or labourer.’  At various times the Amateur Athletics Club and the Amateur Rowing Association adopted similar clauses, though the Amateur Athletics Club dropped theirs after fourteen years, under pressure from members; in 1890 the National Amateur Rowing Association was formed by clubs who found that several of their members would not pass the amateur qualification regulations of the ARA – the two did not amalgamate until 1956.  In 1900 the National Cyclists Union banned from their race meetings prominent English cyclists who had recently been racing on the continent.  The ‘Artisan Golfers’ Association’ was formed in 1920.  The mechanics clause survived the longest - it still applied for rowing in the 1908 London Olympics.  Henley Regatta as late as 1920 banned an American rower who had once been a bricklayer, and banned the Australian Olympic eight in 1936 because they were policemen and therefore could not be amateurs.  Whatever the intention, the mechanics clause came to be seen as an act of class exclusion and resentment.

Adapted from Team Talk, Sporting Words and their Origins

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The next English soccer gaffer

The word to be addressed today is, unsurprisingly, ‘manager’.  What is the difference in status between the language the manager uses, and that used by the footballers he manages (still ‘he’, despite everything)?  I have never heard a manager call himself anything but a ‘manager’, while I have often heard interviewed footballers call their manager ‘the gaffer’.  ‘Manager’ is a word which arrived in English in the sixteenth century from Latin, as a term to describe handling or directing a horse (it is still used, as ‘manege’, for this), while ‘gaffer’ is an abbreviation of ‘godfather’, both of the constituents of that word being derived from Old English words.

In a sense this directs some questioning towards the ‘etymological fallacy’, which states that despite the attractions of the idea, the etymological root of a word is not its ‘deep’ or ‘real’ meaning. But the difference in usage between ‘manager’ and ‘gaffer’ indicates that the etymological root of a word may give clear indicators of its sociolinguistic status, usage, and thus part of what it ‘means’. 

The status between the two words, ‘manager’ and ‘gaffer’, is directly related to their historical origins.  In this case status differentials derive from the different statuses of Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and Old English, in the post-Norman Conquest period, where Latin was the language of government and church, Anglo-Norman French was the language of the wealthy and powerful, and Old English was the language of the dispossessed.  Thus Latin- or French-based words sound to us still more formal, more serious, more authoritative than old English-based words.

To push it a little further: popular ‘football’ comes from Old English fot, and bal, almost definitely Germanic, while rather more posh ‘soccer’ comes from Association Football, ‘association’ being adopted from Latin in the fifteenth century.  The title of the ‘referee’ comes from Old French or directly from Latin, while his or her ‘linesman’, rather lower in status but still with a position of authority, developed from line, from Middle English via a mix of Old English, Old French and Latin, and from the Old English man.  The ‘players’, at the bottom of this linguistic ladder, and with the least authority, derive their name from Old English plega, meaning ‘play’, though their intermediary with authority is their ‘captain’, from Late Latin capitaneus via Old French capitain.  Their roles are: ‘strikers’, from Old English strican; ‘forwards’, from Old English foreweard; ‘halves’, from Old English halb; and ‘backs’, from Old English bæc; with behind them a reassuring ‘goalkeeper’, from Old English gælan (probably) and cepan, who might pass the ball out to the 'wing', of Scandinavian origin.  

To raise their statuses they may wish to be called ‘attack’, from French attaquer, and ‘defence’, from Old French defens.  Both of these are abstract nouns, while the corresponding term for the middle area, ‘midfield’, describing a place, is from Old English mid  and feld.  I would be wary of pushing this much further; but then it’s only a ‘game’, from Old English gamen (‘sport’, far more serious, comes from Old French desport).

For more on the origins of sporting words, see Team Talk, published by Shire Books.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Why have I not enjoyed Pillars of the Earth as much as Wolf Hall?

Somehow over the past two weeks I have read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.  Admittedly I had been looking out for a secondhand vaguely since enjoying the television version last winter, and wanted to see if reading the book would recreate that enjoyment.  It was different of course, but enjoyable.  Particularly I enjoyed curling up on the sofa for most of Saturday evening while it was getting colder outside, and polishing off most of the last third, though it was past one in the morning before I decided to save a bit for the morning.  By then the house was cold.

Some of it raised the occasional grimace: some of the writing about sex is hamfisted, some of the details of cathedral building feel more like ‘bolt-ons’ rather than a natural development of the story, and clichés like ‘a fine figure of a woman’ and ‘the civil war dragged on’ .  But what surprised me most was the ease with which I have read 1074 pages without really trying; I haven’t read it on the train going to work, I haven’t read it in the toilet, and since I bought it it was by the bed until the long Saturday session.  What is it that makes it such a ‘good read’?  This question reminded me of some of the discussion about the last Man Booker Prize; were judges going to decide on the winner on the basis of its being ‘a good read’ or having ‘literary merit’, and does the projected decision imply that these two criteria are mutually exclusive?

Certainly Pillars of the Earth is a very good read - it is very popular, and has been a bestseller since it was published; it is pacy, full of suspense, and I don’t think I skipped or skimmed any of it.  I suspect that its appeal lies in Follett’s knowing how to construct a book which keeps several strands running alongside each other, and in meaningful contact with each other, where a lot happens, none of it irrelevant to what is happening elsewhere.  Much of the book is told as conversation, so the reader feels complicit in the immediacy of the plot.  Violent sequences are told in very short sentences, five to ten words.  But few sentences are longer than twenty-five words, leaving a sense of a ‘ceiling of complexity’ which is not exceeded. Many of the characters are thin and uncomplex, the prior being unremittingly good, even when he fails his own standards, while William Hamleigh is unremittingly bad.  We are directed to make quick judgements as to which side of the line they stand on, and few characters are redeemed by repentance or remorse. I never felt I was inside any of them, or did not understand any of them, unlike in Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which seemed to satisfy the demands of both criteria, being a good read and having literary merit.  There I could empathise with the cautious political enterprise, the world-weary tautness that infused the character of Cromwell and the environment he inhabited, the darting exploitation of situations by those who knew that if they did not rise they would fall.  But most of all in comparing the two books I was aware of discrepancies in my own reactions to the stories, my ‘reader’s need for justice’ plots.    

Bear in mind that I knew vaguely what would happen in Wolf Hall from a general knowledge of history, and that I knew vaguely what would happen in Pillars of the Earth from having seen the television version, though realising pretty quickly from reading the book that there were going to be differences.  Would justice be done a) in the sense of Cromwell being compensated for the treatment he had received as a child from his father, and b) in the sense of the baddies being punished in Pillars of the Earth?  In the case of the second book, yes, it was important; in a way, that seemed to be the point of the book, and what kept me reading – as the outrages were detailed so too did the retribution have to be equally detailed, the physicality of rape matched by the physicality of the rapist’s death, down to details of the same part of the body.

Not so with Wolf Hall; I knew there would be no retribution, that Cromwell would not see his father punished, for the reality of life is that bad things happen, and those who perpetrate them seldom come to remorse through punishment.  This maturer view of the world, which we may not like, is for me where Pillars of the Earth is at its best, where a hero is killed, innocent people suffer, harvests fail, and enterprises collapse; however, in the case of this book, this makes the final retribution more important, for in this way fate too is punished.  In the case of Wolf Hall, I could empathise with Cromwell’s restrained triumphs and his private griefs, recognising a world of realism where, beneath her blindfold, the figure of Justice is staring unblinking into an unfocused distance.  I empathised with not just his pain, but his knowledge that the pain would not be healed.

So, for a good read Pillars of the Earth certainly delivers the goods; it is a good story, well told, and I feel satisfied.  But I now want to read Wolf Hall again: for the dissatisfaction. 

Sunday, 5 February 2012


Adopted from a French word as renk, meaning a space for jousting, the first use of ‘rink’ was in the Scottish dialect as for a place for jousting and later racing, and then figuratively for a contest itself. Later, from the 1780s, ‘rink’ was used for the area of ice specified for curling, and later for ice-skating, and from the 1870s, for roller-skating, when the craze in the United States gave rise to the term ‘Rinkomania’.

The first refrigerated rink built in London was the Glaciarium, constructed in London’s Covent Garden in 1844, with a skating area backed by a panorama of Lake Lucerne. Entry cost 1 shilling, with skating an extra shilling. The proprietor published bills announcing the spectacle ‘on Thursday 25th of January, 1844, [of] the most extraordinary Thaw ever witnessed in this Country or any other’. ‘Glaciarium’ became a generic word for ice-rinks, as established in Melbourne in 1906 and Sydney in 1907. The quality of the ice has always been important – a notice in the Sporting Gazette of 15th April 1878 states that it used ‘real ice – Gamgoe’s patent, not natural’. Rinks now are resurfaced by a ‘Zamboni’, a machine named after its inventor, Frank Zamboni.

from Team Talk: Sporting Words and their Origins

Friday, 3 February 2012

Poor Fred

Since Fred Goodwin (the erstwhile Sir Fred Goodwin) is currently being pitied as much as he was previously vilified, now is a good time to look again at that wonderful word ‘scapegoat’.  This first appears in William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible (1530), and as ‘scape-goote’ is used as a translation for Azazel.  In the Mosaic ritual for the Day of Atonement, two goats were chosen, and lots were cast as to what would happen to them, one being sacrificed, while the other was ‘cast out into the wilderness’ (general purpose Biblical term) carrying the sins of the people.  The second was the ‘scape-goat’, literally ‘the one which escaped’.  Except that ‘scapegoat’ by the nineteenth century had come to mean what it means now, which is exactly the opposite – the one that does not escape, but gets caught, punished and carries the sins of the others, a triple-whammy.  ‘Scape’ and ‘escape’ being the same word, an ‘escapade’ is perhaps ‘something you get away with’, or as the OED puts it, ‘a flighty piece of conduct’.

Has Mr Goodwin been ‘deknighted’ or, following the pattern in use in Twitter and Facebook – ‘unfollow’ and ‘unfriend’, has he been ‘unknighted’?  Or, since he is usually described as having been ‘stripped of his knighthood’, does the term ‘defrock’ cover his demotion to the rank of plebeian?  Has the recent England football captain been ‘demoted’, ‘dismissed’ or ‘decaptained’, or even ‘uncaptained’?  ‘Demotion’ sounds faintly disrespectful to the status of his team-mates.  ‘Relieved of the captaincy’ carries all the understated irony that made England great.  ‘Defrocking’, by the way, dates from the late nineteenth century, and depends on the usage of ‘frock’ to mean the cassock worn by the Anglican clergy.  A frock is essentially an outer article of clothing, now with rather frivolous connotations, but previously quite serious, as in a frock coat or even a frock of mail (chain–mail).  Defrocking someone in chain-mail would be a serious business.

In Train

As the sporting season begins to crank up a gear with the start of the Six Nations Championship, here is an example of a punishing training regime for a sportsman in the early nineteenth century, the sport being not rugby but pedestrianism (running):

‘The art of training for athletic exercises, consists in purifying the body and strengthening its powers, by certain processes, which thus qualify the person for the accomplishment of laborious exercises.’  [The ‘trainer’ has a ‘patient’, to whom he gives initially ‘three dozes of Glauber Salts’ (a mild laxative)].  ‘He [the athlete] must rise at five in the morning, run half a mile at the top of his speed uphill, and then walk six miles at a moderate pace, coming in about seven to breakfast, which should consist of beef-steaks or mutton-chops under-done, with stale bread and old beer.  … The pedestrian must … run four miles, in flannel, at the top of his speed.  Immediately on returning, a hot liquor is prescribed, in order to promote the perspiration, of which he must drink one English pint.  It is termed ‘the Sweating Liquor’, and is composed of the following ingredients, viz: one ounce of caraway seed, half an ounce of coriander seed, one ounce of root liquorice, and half  of sugar-candy, mixed with two bottles of cyder, and boiled down to one half.  He is then put to bed in his flannels, and being covered with six or eight pairs of blankets, and a feather-bed, must remain in this state from twenty-five to thirty-five minutes, when he is taken out and rubbed perfectly dry.  Being then well wrapt in his greatcoat, he walks out gently for two miles, and returns to breakfast.’   Pedestrianism (1813) Walter Thom. 

Captain Barclay, the pedestrian champion,  used a regime similar to this and seemed to do rather well on it.