Q: Is the sports term “cricket” related to the “cricket” that’s an insect? And what about “croquet”? It sounds like a cousin, if not a sibling.
A: The name for the game “cricket” and the insect “cricket” aren’t related, and “croquet” isn’t connected with either of them. That’s the short answer. Now, for the rest.
Since the bug got its name before the games, we’ll start with the entomological etymology of “cricket.” Not surprisingly, the insect got its name from the noise it makes.
As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, the noun “cricket,” first recorded in the Middle Ages, is “of imitative origin, reflecting the sounds made by the insects,” which is later described as “a characteristic chirruping sound” produced by the males.
“Cricket” came into Middle English in the late 13th or early 14th century, adopted from the Anglo-Norman criket and Old French criquet, the dictionary says. The creature had similar onomatopoeic names at the time in medieval Dutch (crekel, krekel, criekel).
The English word first appeared in a copy of a verse treatise used to teach English children French. The manuscript is written in the French spoken in 13th-century England, and has explanatory glosses, or notations, added in Middle English.
In Le traité de Walter de Bibbesworth sur la Langue Française, the word salemaundre is glossed as “criket” in this passage: “au four meint le salemaundre” (“in the oven many a salamander”). Bibbesworth died in 1270. The OED dates the passage and gloss at sometime before 1325.
In Anglo-Norman, a cricket was sometimes referred to as a salemaundre or salamandre, according to citations in the online Anglo-Norman Dictionary.
As the OED explains, the insect, which is attracted to warmth, was identified in Middle English with the mythical fire-loving salamander, “perhaps from the house cricket’s traditional association with the hearth.”
In fact, crickets and hearths often appear together in poetry and literature. Here’s an Oxford citation from Milton: “Far from all resort of mirth, / Save the Cricket on the hearth” (Il Penseroso, 1645).
And here’s one from Dickens, which we’ve expanded: “To have a Cricket on the Hearth, is the luckiest thing in all the world!” (from a novella, The Cricket on the Hearth, 1845).
As for the sporting noun, it came into English some 300 years after the name of the insect. But unfortunately its origin is unknown, according to the OED.
The dictionary’s earliest finding, dated as possibly 1575, is a mention of “Kricket-staues” (“staves,” for the bats used in the game). In the work cited, an anonymous translation of Hendrik Niclaes’s Terra Pacis (Land of Peace), they’re listed among playthings like “Balles,” “Rackets,” and “Dyce.”
The dictionary’s earliest sighting with a definite date is from the Guild Merchant Book (1598), records of the borough of Guildford:
“John Denwick of Guldeford … one of the Queenes Majesties Coroners of the County of Surrey being of the age of fyfty and nyne yeares or there aboute … saith upon his oath that hee hath known the parcell of land … for the space of Fyfty years and more, and … saith that hee being a schollar in the Free schoole of Guldeford, hee and several of his fellowes did runne and play there at Creckett and other plaies.”
The first Oxford citation with the modern spelling appeared about a dozen years later: “a Cricket-staffe; or, the crooked staffe wherewith boyes play at Cricket” (A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611, by Randle Cotgrave).
The OED defines the sport this way: “An outdoor game played on a large grass field with ball, bats, and two wickets, between teams of eleven players, the object of the game being to score more runs than the opposition.”
But this is added in an etymological note: “The character of the game denoted by the word has changed enormously over the centuries.”
The sport “developed in the south-east of England in the 16th and 17th centuries,” Oxford says, and by the end of the following century, “organized cricket was common, frequently with one or both sides fielding more than eleven players.”
In the 19th century, the OED adds, “it came to be viewed as the English national game and, subsequently, as an expression of English national identity or Englishness in general.”
At the same time, “cricket” colloquially came to mean “cricket played in the correct manner or proper spirit,” and consequently denoted “honourable dealings between opponents or rivals in any sphere,” or “fair play.”
Here’s the dictionary’s first example for “cricket” used outside the sport to mean dealing honorably: “We should be very much surprised if the Duke really thought that to dissolve [Parliament] would be ‘cricket’ ” (The Westminster Gazette, June 5, 1900).
As we said, the origin of the word is unknown. The OED rules out any etymological connection with the Middle French criquet (a piece of wood), or with the Old English crycc (a crutch or staff), or with a Middle Dutch regionalism, krik (crutch).
The only theory Oxford allows as a possibility is that the word may come from another 16th-century noun “cricket,” for a low wooden stool. The two nouns had a similar mix of spellings.
It could be that the wicket used in the game resembled a small stool. The dictionary notes that in “stool-ball,” an older game “somewhat resembling cricket” and dating from the 1400s, “the ‘stool’ was the wicket.” Alas, there’s no solid evidence for this as the etymology, but it does seem plausible.
Last but not least we arrive at “croquet,” the newcomer in the group. The game and the noun for it were first used in Ireland in the mid-19th century.
The word is “supposed to be” (as the OED says) derived from croquet, a dialectal term for a shepherd’s crook in Old Northern French, an ancestor of Anglo-Norman.
Historians of the game have said that in Brittany, 18th-century French peasants played the game under the name croquet. But there’s no documentary evidence for this; the word for the game apparently wasn’t used in France until the late 19th century.
Émile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la Langue Française (1886) describes croquet as an English word (“Angl. croquet”) for an English game: “Jeu anglais qui se joue avec un marteau, des boules et de petites arcades que l’on plante sur le terrain.” And the English word’s origin? Littré says it’s derived from a Norman term for a hook (“du normand croquet, crochet”).
Oxford’s definition of the sport is similar: “A game played upon a lawn, in which wooden balls are driven by means of wooden mallets through iron arches or ‘hoops’ fixed in the ground in a particular order.”
In the OED’s earliest citation, the game is described as played in County Meath, Ireland: “There is no game which has made such rapid strides in this county within a few years as croquet” (from The Field, a British sporting magazine, July 10, 1858).
The same magazine reported a few issues later (Nov. 27, 1858) that the game “was introduced into the North of Ireland some twelve years ago from a French convent.” As we said, the French use of croquet for the game in the 18th or early 19th centuries has not been confirmed.
The OED also notes that an anecdotal report, published in 1864, “stated that the game had been played under this name (though this is perhaps doubtful) near Dublin in 1834-5.” Who knows? As old documents continue to be digitized, earlier uses may come to light.
At any rate, the OED goes on to say this, unequivocally: “From Ireland the game and name were introduced into England in 1852, where between 1858 and 1872 croquet attained great popularity.” And the rest is history.