Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

English On It

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 8, 2013

The idioms put some English on it is most often associated with baseball and refers to the pitcher giving the ball curve while it’s in the air, on its way to the batter.  That idiom, along with and put some reverse English on it, are  found in billiards halls the world over when talking about a ball that drops into a pocket with the aid of some spin. And it also refers to communications intended to distort or deceive others.

On December 8, 2002 Joe Goddard of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote an article entitled, “Ramblers Thump Valpo” which made quick work of the basketball game between the Loyola Ramblers and Valparaiso Crusaders in the Horizon League that ended in a score of 80 to 62. In the brief article, the following was written in part:

“I had to get it over him, so I put some English on it.” Most of Tsimpliaridis’ shots were from the perimeter. He shot 7-for-9 from the field.

On December 19, 1953 Bill Beck, Sports Editor for the St. Petersburg Times wrote about an odd sport that played the walls like handball, demanded the strategy and rhythm of tennis, required the skills of baseball infielding, and allowed spectators to place bets as if they were at a race track: Jai-Alai. It didn’t catch on, contrary to Bill Beck’s hopes, but it certainly gave insight into the game, the players and Adriano Aguiar, who managed the lone American of the 32-man team. In the end, this is what Bill Beck had to say of the game:

You will find the players not only retrieve and return the ball, but put “Englishon it.  You will find they fire it so close to the wall, their opponent cannot get his cuesta (wicker racket-type glove) between ball and wall for return.

The Palm Beach Post newspaper of November 21, 1921 also carried the idiom in a somewhat modified form in an article entitled, “Preparing For Failure.” The story dealt with the surprise disarmament conference announced by President Harding, which led to a number of metropolitan newspapers stating that “the administration” was considering measures against “agitators” who were trying to force “real disarmament” to eliminate the chances of war. The article read in part:

Toward the end of the dispatch there lies the secret:

“The hope of the president for a continuation of the conferences like the present one became known at a moment when the arms delegates reached a stage in their deliberations strongly suggesting itself that further negotiations will be necessary to consummate the task begun here.”

That surely is putting the “reverse Englishon it.  It must not be forgotten for a moment that the men at this conference are all politicians, and that they want to keep their jobs more than anything else. The hopes of the peoples all over have been aroused by this disarmament (beg pardon) by this limitation or armaments conference.

In the New York Times article of February 1, 1879 the idiom appeared in altered form — with the meaning intact regardless of the use of the word reverse — in an article reporting on a billiards tournament. It was clear that the “English” in question was going to be “put on it” as the Brunswick and Balke Championship Tournament entered its second week of play. The stakes were high, and at one point, it was reported:

It was a difficult shot from every direction, and before essaying it, the Frenchman, amid general laughter took off his dress-coat, and came up again in the full brilliancy of his diamond-studded and much-starched shirt. He then stroked his mustache, drew his cue backwards and forward, and struck the cue ball. Failing to count, he retired, laughing quietly, and gave Sexton an opportunity of gathering 4 points. The latter made a very pretty “kiss” shot, with “reverse English” in the twelfth inning, but retired after scoring 7 billiards.

Ten years prior to the newspaper article in the New York Times, Mark Twain used the expression in Chapter XII of his book “Innocents Abroad” published in 1869 in which he wrote:

We had played billiards in the Azores with balls that were not round and on an ancient table that was very little smoother than a brick pavement—one of those wretched old things with dead cushions, and with patches in the faded cloth and invisible obstructions that made the balls describe the most astonishing and unsuspected angles and perform feats in the way of unlooked-for and almost impossible “scratches” that were perfectly bewildering. We had played at Gibraltar with balls the size of a walnut, on a table like a public square—and in both instances we achieved far more aggravation than amusement. We expected to fare better here, but we were mistaken. The cushions were a good deal higher than the balls, and as the balls had a fashion of always stopping under the cushions, we accomplished very little in the way of caroms. The cushions were hard and unelastic, and the cues were so crooked that in making a shot you had to allow for the curve or you would infallibly put the “English” on the wrong side of the hall. Dan was to mark while the doctor and I played.

It appears  that the expression is as a result of billiards, but how did this come about?

The earliest mention of the game of billiards is in “Mother Hubberd’s Tale” published in 1591 where the author speaks of “all thriftles games that may be found … with dice, with cards, with billiards.”  It’s mentioned in William Shakespeare’s play “Anthony and Cleopatra.”  But it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s that changes were made to the game and how the game was meant to be played. Of particular note was the introduction of the leather cue tip in 1823 which allowed players to add side-spin to the ball, and this was new advancement was introduced to billiards players the world over, including those in America.

By 1860, the French were referring to spin imparted to a billiards ball as anglé … a clever play on words since anglé meaning angled and anglais meaning English share the same pronunciation. This play on words quickly caught on with other billiards players, and when someone put spin on a billiards ball, they were playing a ball that was anglé / anglais which was literally translated to the word: English.

The expression, put English on it, is therefore from 1860 and has its roots firmly planted in the game of billiards.

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