Q: During a baseball game on TV the other night, the announcer referred to putting a little extra “English” on the ball. Is this an Americanism? How do the English speak of putting spin on a ball?
A: We’ve seen several theories, most of them pretty far-fetched, for why Americans use the word “English” to describe the spin on a ball. The least unlikely in our opinion is that the usage may have been influenced by the spin, or “side,” favored by English players of billiards, pool, or snooker in the 19th century.
The Oxford English Dictionary, which is similarly cautious about the etymology, has this to say about the origin of the American usage: “Perhaps so named because English players introduced the technique to the U.S.”
The OED defines the usage as “U.S. Sport (originally Billiards). Spin imparted to a ball by striking it on one side rather than centrally so as to affect its course, esp. after an impact or bounce.” The dictionary says the word “English” here is a synonym for the British term “side.”
The earliest Oxford example for the American usage is from a humorous description of a billiards player who makes various gestures with his cue and body in useless attempts to put spin on the ball or move it in the right direction:
“Tricks at Billiards. … Immediately after shooting using his cue as a magic wand and flourishing it in the air above the table to give an increased ‘English’ to his ball” (Cleveland Daily Plain Dealer, Oct. 14, 1861). The quotation marks around “English” suggest that the usage was relatively new in writing, but perhaps heard in speech.
The next OED citation also uses the term humorously, but refers to putting actual spin on a ball. The passage, which we’ve expanded, describes a game of billiards in Paris:
“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 ball” (Innocents Abroad, 1869, by Mark Twain).
The British use of “side” in that sense appeared a few years before Americans used “English” for spin. This is Oxford’s earliest citation:
“I do not feel satisfied of any writer being able to convey in diagrams the amount of side to put on a ball for canons when the side stroke is required” (from Billiards, 1858, by Walter White).
Finally, we should mention that we wrote a post in 2012 about the British use of “side” as a slang term meaning insolence, arrogance, pride, pretentiousness, and so on.
Oxford’s earliest example for this sense of the word is from the Nov. 26, 1870, issue of Punch: “Swagger a bit, and put on ‘side’ in the streets of the gay Versailles.”
The dictionary describes the slang usage as “of uncertain origin,” but it notes a possible connection to the use of the term in billiards.