Clear the Boards

I’d watch shotgun golf if someone would show it.

Dear Word Detective: In writing to a friend today I included the phrase “cleared the boards,” meaning that I had finished all my appointments, so I was able to see her sooner than expected. Where did this phrase come from? I tried the prime source, the vast Word Detective Archive, and then the secondary source, Google. Most of what I found was basketball reports. I hate basketball. Where did this phrase come from really? — LM.

Wow. You really hate basketball? I didn’t know that was possible, and I’ll bet I hate sports you’ve never heard of. But basketball for some reason doesn’t annoy me at all, and if I’m trapped somewhere with people watching a basketball game, I’ll watch it simply because it requires real skill and grace (unlike football) and doesn’t reek of moronic violence (again unlike, well, never mind). Baseball is also nice. It’s my favorite of all the sports that I never watch.

Unfortunately, having a vaguely positive opinion of basketball doesn’t translate into understanding the game, and I must admit that the use of “clear the boards” in the vernacular of basketball strikes me as seriously odd. I had initially assumed that the “boards” referred to were the floorboards of the basketball court, and that “clearing” them would mean something like mounting a well-organized drive towards the opponents’ basket. Wrong-o-rama. It seems that the “board” in the phrase refers to the backboard (originally wood, but now often Plexiglas) mounted behind the basket, and “boards” plural is basketball slang for rebounds off this “board” of missed shots at the basket. Having players positioned to snag these rebounds and gain or retain control of the ball is key to the game, and players are said to “clear,” “bang,” or “crash the boards” if they have a high success rate in this task.

I may, of course, be slightly off in that explanation, but it seems unlikely that “clear the boards” as you used it to mean “get all your work done and free yourself up” comes from basketball. That leaves only the other nine zillion uses of “board” in English as possible sources. For a word that first appeared around in Old English meaning simply “a thin plank of wood,” our friend “board” has developed a lot of meanings and figurative uses.

One of the developments of “board” that has produced the most figures of speech is its use to mean “table,” particularly “dining table,” and, by extension, “meal” or “food.” Thus we speak of “bed and board” and “boarding house” meaning a lodging house where at least some meals are included in the price paid by “boarders.” In the days of sailing ships, the “board” was the side of the ship near the top of the hull, giving us “on board,” “going overboard” for the act off falling into the sea, and “by the board,” which originally was said of a mast falling into the sea alongside the ship but now means “abandoned” (“A class of grammatical distinctions which have gone by the board,” 1875).

“Board” in the sense of “table” also gave us expressions drawn from the world of gambling, the second most popular use of tables after eating. So we speak of an honest person or deal being “above board,” which originally meant that all the players kept their hands above the table, indicating a basic level of honesty. A player who won a game of cards decisively was said to “sweep the board,” referring to the action of gathering up the cards or pot of money with a sweeping motion, and the phrase is still used (often with the plural “boards”) to mean to take all the prizes or honors in a contest (“Rossendale butchers sweep the board at meat ‘Oscars’,” Lancashire (UK) Telegraph).

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