A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "English," the kind you put on a ball?

May 5, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

It's another lazy San Francisco night and as I watch my beloved Giants baseball team on TV, I wonder at a comment made by the broadcaster. What is the origin of the term "English" as applied to a ball (any ball) spinning in some impressive fashion in the field of sports? Bowling, tennis, baseball.... As in: "That ball had a lot of English on it spinning back to the pitcher on the mound." Cecil, you are an acknowleged genius in many areas of knowledge, but this seems to be a particularly vexing conundrum, given the terminally goofy etymological history of sports catchphrases. Step up to the plate, Unca Cecil ...

Now batting for Cecil Adams, just called up from AAA ball, the Mailbag staff! It's appropriate, anyway, since this is actually a pretty minor league question, Glenn. You were on the right track, though, since the word's origins are more evident when you connect it with other sports.

Oddly enough, the origins of "English" don't appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, even though the word is right there on the cover. False advertising, sez I. However, other sources are pretty much in agreement. "English" comes from "body English," the contortions a thrower/roller/hitter goes through after the ball has left the hand/club/cue. These motions are called body English because they relate to the physical gestures we employ when we speak. Which is differentiated from "body language," emotions communicated through posture rather than gesture.

So, while "body English" is what we do after the ball is in motion, the term "English" is reserved to describe motion actually put on the ball by its spin. What do the English call "English"? "Side." As in "Don't hit it in the center, hit in on the ..." Sometimes the English make sense, even if "English" doesn't.

Related Posts with Thumbnails
Staff Reports are written by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

Recent Additions:

A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams

Send questions for Cecil Adams to: cecil@chicagoreader.com

Send comments about this website to: webmaster@straightdope.com

Terms of Use / Privacy Policy

Advertise on the Straight Dope! Your direct line to thou- sands of the smartest, hippest people on the planet, plus a few total dipsticks.

Publishers - interested in subscribing to the Straight Dope? Write to: sdsubscriptions@chicagoreader.com.

Copyright © 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC.