Dear Word Detective: I was watching billiards (“pool,” if you will) on ESPN the other day (yes, I was bored), and the announcer was talking about the players putting “english” on the ball, i.e., making it spin with their cue sticks to get the cue ball to end up in a desired location. Then I thought also about the phrase “body english,” which I sometimes use to try to make a putt go in the hole at the golf course. Where and how did these usages of “english” come in to being? Why not “put some french on the ball,” or use “body spanish” to alter physics? – Lisa Gold.
“Billiards” is fine by me. Whenever somebody says they spent the evening “playing pool,” I picture one of those inflatable float toys with a horse’s head. I guess I need to spend more time in bars. Not that I’m a big fan of swimming pools, either. While I’m always up for meeting new strains of exotic bacteria, pools really aren’t much fun if you’re blind as a bat without your glasses. Incidentally (he says in a frantic attempt to get back to the subject), the word “billiards” comes from the French “billard,” which was actually the word for the cue stick (from “bille,” piece of wood). “Pool,” the game, comes from the French word for it, “poule,” also meaning “collective stakes” (what we call a “pool” or “pot” in other games). Interestingly, “poule” also happens to be the French word for “hen.” The French “poule” was originally used to mean a kind of card game, but the name apparently harks back to a game in the Middle Ages that actually involved throwing things at a chicken.
The use of “English” to mean “spin induced to a ball or other projectile in order to alter its course” is a fairly recent American invention, dating back only to the mid-19th century, although the practice itself is probably as old as throwing stuff at chickens. (Capitalization of this kind of “English” is inconsistent, but I capitalize it to avoid giving my spellchecker fits.) In billiards, “English” is applied by striking the ball with the cue stick slightly off-center, causing the ball to spin and take a curved, rather than straight, path. The same technique is also called “side,” especially in Britain, because the ball is struck slightly to one side. “English” can be used in almost any sport that involves a ball (e.g., golf, tennis, baseball), and the term is also used in a broader sense to mean “force or fiddling applied to a tool, lock, etc., to make it work” (“When Simon tried to close the door … he encountered difficulties. The officer lent a hand. ‘You have to put a little English on it,’ he explained. ‘There’s a defect in the catch,’” 1966).
There are two popular theories about the origin of “English.” The more baroque, which strikes me as cumbersome and unlikely, is that “English” is a botched translation of the French “angle” (meaning “angled”), which was mistaken by someone for “Anglais,” meaning “England.” The other theory is that the technique was introduced to the US by English pool sharks in the 19th century. That’s certainly possible, but I suspect that “English” in this sense is just another example of our tendency to label anything even faintly exotic as “foreign” and perhaps faintly disreputable and unfair. If I’m right, “English” is a fairly mild product of the same national finger-pointing that gave us such terms as “French leave” for desertion from the army, “Dutch nightingale” for a frog, and “Irish confetti” for bricks thrown in a street brawl.
“Body English” was originally actually a sardonic bit of humor. It means contorting one’s body (leaning, twisting, etc.) after the shot is made, too late to apply real English, in mock hope that the course of the ball can be thereby altered. I have, however, also seen it used to mean altering one’s posture while making a shot (or putt, etc.), when “body English” actually can make a substantial difference.