Friday, 15 November 2013

Anyone for Sphairistike?

As a previous blog has vouchsafed to you, Noble Reader, I did my teenage astronomy at Rossall College. This is a private school on the Irish Sea coast in an area known as the Fylde. Believe it or not, this unlikely spot is, after a fashion, the home of one of the world's greatest sports.

Whether or not the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton -- and it's rather doubtful that the Duke of Wellington ever made a remark to that effect -- it's pretty certain that the love of ball games was well established among the children of Britain's ruling elite even in the mid-eighteenth century.

Walter Clopton Wingfield, a Rossall old boy, later served in the Indian army, and on his return to England began to market a set of equipment to allow owners of country houses with neatly-kept lawns to play a new game he had invented. This diversion was more spirited than croquet and required fewer participants than cricket. He called it "Sphairistike." That is what you call a real fifty-dollar word. It's ancient Greek for "skill at ball games." Not the sort of trade mark you choose if you want your product to take off, you may say, but then at the time marketing was in its infancy and most of the people who could afford the kit (and the lawn) would have had at least a smattering of classical languages.

Many rule changes later, the game has evolved into a world sport which gives pleasure to millions and disappointment to English hopes every year. (Yes, Andy Murray, is indeed not English.) But just imagine if old Major Wingfield had opted to name his game after himself. Then, the sporting courts of Wimbledon might have been owned and organized by the All England Clopton Club. Doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it?


  1. Now that's a beauthiful word. Thank you for the linguistic journey!

  2. What an education. When exactly did it become lawn or table tennis? Good stuff. Good luck with publication of your work. Kharis Macey