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Why the racket sport is “squash”

Q: I know “squash,” the food name, comes from a Native American word that sounded like that to the Pilgrims. How did “squash,” the sport, get its name?

A: We’ve written on the blog about the “squash” that’s a vegetable and the “squash” that means to crush. As we say in a 2012 post, the two words aren’t even remotely related.

The word for the gourd is a short form of asquutasquash, a term for the vegetable in the Narragansett language, spoken by indigenous people in what’s now Rhode Island.

The verb “squash,” on the other hand, ultimately comes from exquassare, a derivative of quassare, Latin for to shake off or drive away. An etymological relative is “quash.”

As for the “squash” that’s a sport, it has nothing to do with the vegetable. It’s “related to, or directly from” the verb that means to crush, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The game of “squash,” played with rackets and a small rubber ball in an enclosed court, was invented by English schoolboys at Harrow in the mid-19th century.

As James Zug writes in his book Squash: A History of the Game (2007), it developed as a gentler version of a much rougher sport, “rackets” (or “racquets”), in which a hard ball was hit against a wall with what “looked like an elongated tennis bat.”

To play their new game, Zug says, Harrow boys used a special, thick rubber ball punctured with a hole, and a sawed-off racquet.

“This bastardized version of racquets was called ‘baby racquets’ or ‘soft racquets’ or ‘softer,’ ” he says.

The rubber ball (originally called a “squash”) and the shorter racket were easier for the younger and weaker boys to play with.

The new game quickly became popular, and the first “official” game of squash was played at Harrow in January 1865, according to Zug.

As we mentioned, the noun “squash” as a sports term originally referred to the ball, according to the OED, while the game itself was “squash rackets.”

Zug quotes a Harrow alumnus who wrote a letter to the editor of the Times (London) in 1923, recalling the sport’s earliest days: “Our old squashes were rather smaller than a Fives [handball] ball. They used to make splendid squirters in the early ’sixties.”

The game itself is still sometimes called “squash rackets,” but today it’s generally just “squash” while the ball is a “squash ball.”

The OED’s earliest citations are from an 1886 issue of the Pall Mall Gazette: “The game in question, termed ‘squash’ rackets at Harrow if my memory serves me. … There are the ‘squashes’—that is, soft indiarubber balls—to be purchased.”

Since the game was played at Harrow in the 1860s or earlier, the sports terms “squash” and “squash rackets” were obviously in use long before the OED indicates. Older examples may eventually turn up in mid-century letters, journals, and school publications.

Meanwhile, we’ve found a few examples that are older than the OED’s, along with indications that “squash” may have been used as a sports term at Harrow in the late 1850s.

For example, in 1875 an anonymous writer recalled, “looking back to twenty years ago (ah! if it were only that),” an occasion when he played in “an open Racquet court.” He writes: “We played in this court with an india-rubber ball, since designated by the euphonious name ‘squash.’ ”

The passage is from the “Racquets” column of the December 1875 issue of the Newtonian, the magazine of Newton College, a boys’ public school in England.

The contributor may have been the school’s headmaster at that time, George Townsend Warner. He was educated at Harrow, leaving in 1858 and going on to Cambridge University. Later issues of the Newtonian identify the headmaster as an enthusiastic player of racket sports.

Another hint that squash may have been played at Harrow in the 1850s (though perhaps not yet known by that name) comes from the writings of Sir Douglas Straight.

Straight, another product of Harrow, wrote books for boys in the Victorian era, sometimes anonymously and sometimes under the pen name “Sidney Daryl.” He left the school in 1860, and went on to become a barrister, a judge, and finally the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette.

One of his books is about a fictional boy, Hugh Russell at Harrow: A Sketch of School Life (1880), and it makes two references to “squash”:

“Another pastime in which he indulged a good deal was ‘squash-rackets.’ There was a very good ‘squash-court’ attached to the house, and whenever, he could get a ‘place,’ Russell was to be seen there.”

A glossary at the end of the book has this definition: “Squash—(1) Rackets played with a soft india-rubber ball. (2) A ‘scrimmage’ at football.”

No dates are given for the fictional Hugh Russell’s tenure at Harrow. But if Straight was recalling his own school days, perhaps the term “squash” was used there when he was a student in the late 1850s.

The OED treats the sports use of “squash” as a descendant of the verb meaning to crush. Other uses of the noun “squash” have similarly referred to soft or crushable things and are also related to the old verb.

In the 1600s, for example, a “squash” could mean an unripe pea pod or a variety of pear.

Since the late 19th century, Oxford citations show, “squash” has also meant a drink made of crushed fruit. The word is either used alone or with an adjective, as in “lemon squash,” “orange squash,” and so on. This usage is more common in Britain than in the US.

And in another usage dating from the late 19th century, “squash” can mean “a crush or crowd of persons, etc.,” Oxford says. Not unlike that use of “squash” to mean a “scrimmage” on the playing field.

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