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 …
SDStaff Ian replies:
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.
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