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Sporting the oak

Q: I thought I was reasonably adept at understanding British English, but I recently got my comeuppance. I was reading Above Suspicion, a 1940s thriller by Helen MacInnis, when this sentence floored me: “The oak was sported.” It was in a scene in which the wife of an Oxford don was approaching the door of her husband’s rooms. Please help!

A: To “sport oak,” “sport the oak,” or “sport one’s oak” is to close your outdoor door as a signal that you don’t want visitors. The verb “sport” in the expression means to display or exhibit, as in “He sported a new suit.”

The expression dates from the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and  was “originally and chiefly British University slang.”

Older college rooms often had an inner door for ordinary use and a wooden outer, called the oak, that was usually folded back against the outside wall. A closed outer door indicated one didn’t want to be disturbed.

The OED’s first citation is from a pamphlet in verse about life at the University of Oxford: “ ‘Tis prudent at first coming down to sport oak” (An Incredible Bore: A Familiar Epistle, 1780, by Roger Wittol).

The dictionary’s next citation, which mentions a slightly different version (“to sport timber”), is from a glossary compiled in 1785: “To sport timber, to keep one’s outside door shut: this term is used in the inns of courts to signify denying one’s self.”

The third citation is from James Beresford’s satirical work The Miseries of Human Life (1806): “Seeing the sun quietly slink behind a mass of black clouds, where he sports oak for the rest of the day.”

In the 19th century the expression “to sport oak” caught on at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, where it became popular undergraduate slang.

In 1873, Joseph Ashby-Sterry wrote about the tradition (in an essay called, naturally, “The Sported Oak”): “Though believing implicitly in the sporting of the oak as a superb institution, I must say I have considerable sympathy for the sufferers on the wrong side of the door.”

The practice was alive and well in the mid-20th century, according to Prof. Michael Wolff of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Writing about his undergraduate days at Cambridge in the 1940s, Wolff said: “It was a great breach of decorum to open a sported oak.”

And the tradition is alive still. Here’s a line from Antonia Fraser’s contemporary mystery Oxford Blood, in which her sleuth Jemima Shore is shooting a TV exposé of undergraduate life: “Before Jemima could stop her, Tiggie had banged boldly upon Professor Mossbanker’s heavily shut door – his ‘sported oak.’ ”

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 5, 2023.]

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