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Popular sporting words and their etymology

By Tarli Cameron | June 16, 2021 | Word Geek

Popular sporting words and their etymology

Whether you enjoy playing sports or simply spectating, it’s hard not to get caught up in the hype that comes with major sporting events such as the Euro Football Championships or the Olympics. 

As a sports fanatic, Word Geek decided it was time to explore the etymology of some of her favourite popular sports.


The origins of this popular sport are first recorded some 2,000 years ago, when the Romans played a ball game known as harpastum, a term which derived from the Greek word for seize. The sport has had many incarnations in different places but the sport we know today is purported to have started at a school in Rugby in eastern Warwickshire. Who knew?! In 1823, a pupil by the name of William Webb Ellis was playing football and, breaking the rules, picked up the ball and ran with it. The rest, as they say is history!

Word Geek’s interest, however, was peaked by the origins of the town name Rugby, which lent itself to this “new” sport. Rugby derived from the Anglo Saxon Hrōca burh. Hrōca is thought to be either the man’s name Hroca or the Old English hroc (rook), while burh is Old English for town or fortified settlement. Later in the 13th century, Danish settlers replaced burh with the Old Norse -by, meaning village but burh is still visible today as -bury in place names such as Glastonbury.


Pre-dating modern day history, we have ‘real tennis’, also known as Royal tennis. Nicknamed ‘the sport of Kings’ it was popular in the court of Henry VIII! The name itself is believed to have come from the server calling the Middle English word tenetz!, itself from Old French tenez, meaning hold, receive or take.

Much later, in the 1870s, Welsh army officer Major Walter Wingfield patented a game called Sphairistike, Greek for ball. While the basic principles of the game were not new, and indeed other versions may have been played elsewhere earlier, he formalised the rules and standardised a tennis set that included racquets, balls, posts and a net.  Although the name Sphairistike never caught on, the new game flourished, first under the alternative name of ‘lawn tennis’, as suggested by future Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, and then as ‘tennis’.


While there is much debate around its origins, the most widely accepted etymology of the wordgolf’ is that it comes to English via the Scots word gouf, itself derived from the Middle Dutch word colf meaning stick, club or bat. Another theory is that ‘golf’ comes from the Scots word goulf meaning to strike or cuff, itself also possibly derived from the same Middle Dutch colf.

In any case, the game itself had been played in one form or another for centuries. It is most widely accepted as starting in the Netherlands before being brought by Dutch sailors to the east coast of Scotland, where it eventually became the day we know today.