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James Naismith and wife Maude practise shots with a peach basket in 1928. Read more here

Sometimes an investigation is of the moment, quickly grabbed and opportunistic.  You can milk the moment for all its worth to reinforce the idea that words are the basis of everything – yes, even basketball.

Last week and over the weekend the Interscholastic Association of Southeast Asian Schools, of which we are a member, held tournaments in the region, and ISKL, our school, hosted basketball. A lot of games, a lot of keen students eager to support our girls’ and boys’ teams, a lot of cheering. Before we left the classroom for the courtside bleachers to cheer on our teams, I ruthlessly exploited the students’ desire to watch by asking them to first hypothesize about the word <basketball>. And as with all words, there is a story to be told!

We all knew the meaning of ‘basketball’- both the ball and a game that many of my students play. I asked students to hypothesize a date that this word may have entered English and consider the language of the etymon. We are beginning work on knowledge of the various periods in the development of the English language and key events such as the invasions, revolutions, writings that shaped English. Most students glance only briefly at the date of a word’s attestation and the language from where the word entered English. Even then they don’t regard it as an artifact thinking about what this might show about the culture that has adopted this word at this time and place. They are often far too swift in their reading of an etymological entry and miss a lot of the story in their effort to clutch at the first thing that appears as a root. Slowly they are becoming aware of the main periods in the development of the English: before Old English, Old English, Middle English and the Early Modern, Late Modern and the Present Day English periods. We have timelines of this around the room. The OED divides this timeline, into even more sections with interesting overviews:  English in time

As you would expect with limited knowledge, there were a variety of wild guesses as to the time when basketball was attested. Yet the majority felt that <basketball> as a game was modern – few were convinced the game existed in the Old English period, while the majority thought this word a coinage of the Late Modern Period. Marshall, a keen basketball player himself and reader of many sports magazines and texts, was fairly certain that the word had been generated by an American in the 1890’s.

Before leaping into the dictionary we analyzed the word itself- commenting that the word is a noun, a compound word and therefore two base elements from two different roots.  There were several hypotheses. All students were convinced that <ball> was a free base element. From this point, we discussed  whether <basket> could be analyzed into two morphemes <bask+et>. Listen to the student below discussing <basketball>.



The suffix <-et>

We discussed the possibility of <-et> as a suffix. In order to form a hypothesis, of course you need evidence. We quickly assembled words such as casket, ballet, tourniquet, fillet, blanket, market, racquet. Some students speculated that words such as fillet, ballet, tourniquet  were French  – they ‘sounded French’ and as another student said, “In those words the <t> isn’t pronounced.” We talked about market, casket, racquet also being French but maybe as another speculated, “ Maybe they’d (the words) hung around in English longer and so the <-et> is said.”

 <-et>  as a suffix forms diminutives from nouns and ‘represents Old French -et masculine, -ete (modern French -ette) the feminine’. In English the suffix occurs chiefly in ‘French words adopted into Middle English, as: bullet, crotchet, fillet, gullet, hatchet, mallet, pocket, pullet, sonnet, tablet, turret. ‘ The OED notes that ‘most of these are now used without any consciousness of their original diminutive sense. To us, basket had no obvious sense of smallness.

A bath, to bask, and to bathe : baking hot

While <bask> is indeed a free base element those students analyzing basket as <bask+et> quickly realized that <bask> denoted ‘bathing in, luxuriating in something.’ They used familiar examples from here in Malaysia of lizards, snakes and even tourists on beaches basking in the sunshine.  Bask , we later discovered, is of Old Norse roots baðask,  bathask, attested from 1393, acquired initially in the sense of ‘wallowing in blood’ . ‘To bathe, especially in warm water or liquid, and so transferred the sense of to ‘be suffused with, or swim in, blood:’ ‘The child lay bathend in her blood. And for the blood was hote and warme He basketh him about therinne.’( 1393 John Gower, Confessio Amantis, OED ). The sense of lying in pleasant warmth occurred three centuries later, in the 17th century and the OED cites Shakespeare in As You Like (1616) as the first to use <bask> in the sense of : ‘To expose to a flood of warmth, to suffuse with genial warmth’: Shakespeare As you like It ii. vii. 15   ‘A foole, Who laid him downe, and bask’d him in the Sun.’


Illustration of the motley fool basking in the sun by Hugh Thompson for Shakespeare’s As You Like It, from the Hodder and Stoughton edition, 1913


The Old Norse etymon, is reflexive of the verb batha, to bathe and not etymologically and therefore not morphologically connected with baskets! So bask , bathe and bath are related, all separate free base elements and emerging in English from Proto Germanic roots in different time periods : bath in the Old English period bæð, and ultimately from the PIE root *bhe- “to warm”. The earliest attestation according to the OED is from 864 . Bathe, the verb, is attested slightly later but still in the Old English period around 1000 from Old English baðian and pronounced differently due to i- mutation. (Read Douglas Harper’s brief and lucid explanation of i-mutation here with examples of other OE words where this occurred).  Lying beneath all, bask, bath, bathe, is the connotation of heat. However, dear readers, there’s more … When fossicking amongst the PIE root *bhe-,*bho-, we unearthed another related word : <bake>. We gasped at the now obvious heat connection!


As we realized there was no possible meaning link between bask, and basket, we concluded that the first base element in the compound <basketball> was a free base element. The origins of basket, we discovered, still confound etymologists. We saw that it has been attested from 1300 so entering English via French in the Middle English period. Chaucer used the word in the Pardoner’s prologue, 117: I wil do no labour with myn hondes, Ne make basketis and lyve therby.’ But the rest beyond this time is pure speculation – perhaps Latin bascauda– a table vessel or kettle or perhaps even from a Celtic etymon indicating a wicker basket.


Smith College  women’s basketball team, obviously 1902!



Many students predicted <ball> was from the Old English period. In the class there are Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish speakers and all noted the similarity of their  mother tongues’ word for ball. They recognized that these languages, like Old English, are Germanic which helped them hypothesize about the Old English origins. However, ball is a homophone- as one student noted and as such is of two different roots. The ball where you dance is a descendent from Latin ballare which in turn evolved from Greek ballizein ‘dance’. This root has also led to other family members such as ballad, ballet, ballerina.

The round, spherical ball which dribbles, bounces and rebounds throughout the game of basketball entered English in the Middle English period perhaps from Old Norse bollr,  or from an unattested Old English etymon *beall. These evolved from the hypothesized Proto Germanic root *balluz.  Many of the male students were entertained to discover that this Germanic etymon also led to bollocks or ballocks, a word derived from OE bealluc  for testicles, and quite acceptable in every day speech until the end of the seventeenth century when it was regarded as ‘coarse slang ‘ and not recorded by Johnson in his Dictionary of 1755, nor seen in the OED until 1972.

Despite the entry into the hallowed pages of the OED, the scent of coarse language still hovered around the word in 1977 when John Mortimer and Geoffrey Robinson were called on to defend a ‘particularly studious young university graduate who sung under the sobriquet of Johnny Rotten’ (The Justice Game, Geoffrey Robinson). There was much righteous outrage over the title of the Sex Pistols’ Album: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.

John Mortimer called in a Professor of English from Leicester University as an expert witness to explain the etymology of ballocks, bollocks informing the judge and jurors of the word’s Old English heritage, its reference to the tubers of orchids and citing Eric Partridge’s research of the colloquial or slang senses which include an apparent 17th to 19th century reference to the clergy: ‘In 1684 the Officer Commanding the Straights always referred to his chaplain as Ballocks’. In the late 19-20th century bollocks /ballocks took on the sense of nonsense and later a muddle or confusion in army references from 1915.  Etymology won the day and the charges were dismissed.

‘What sort of country are we living in if a politician comes to Nottingham and speaks here to a group of people in the city centre and during his speech a heckler replies ‘bollocks’, are we to expect this person to be incarcerated, or do we live in a country where we are proud of our Anglo Saxon language? Do we wish our language to be virile and strong or watered down and weak?'(John Mortimer)

This was a great opportunity to point out the different registers of English with the more formal, medical connotations of Latin derived testicle and the more everyday, colloquial use of bollocks. The Germanic stem *bal-, *bul- was also the source for the receptacle ‘bowl.’


The receptacle bowl too can be traced back to the PIE root *bhel-(2)’To blow, swell, with derivatives referring to various round objects.’ (AHD). This ancient root is shared with Old English bolla  which denotes ‘bud, round pod, globular vessel’ hence Old English heafodbolla ‘brainpan, skull’ from the Germanic root *būl- ‘to swell, be swollen’. The OED states that the ‘normal modern spelling’ of <bowl> would be ‘<boll> which came down to 17th century in the sense of a ‘round vessel’. However ,<boll> now remains in use denoting a ‘round seed-vessel’. I immediately think of those pesky weevils attacking cotton bolls – the boll weevil.

The OED further informs the word-curious that ‘early Middle English pronunciation of  <oll> as /ɔːl/ (compare roll , poll , toll , etc.), has ‘left its effects in the modern spelling <bowl> in the sense of ‘vessel’’ (OED). While this conveniently separates this form from other senses, such as <boll>, it collides with the homonym bowl as in ‘playing bowls’.

John Ayto shows that the other <bowl> was originally ‘simply a synonym for ball’. This bowl, the action of rolling a ball in the Middle English period (1420) is from French boule ball, from Latin bulla ‘bubble’, hence, ‘round thing, ball. ’ The Latin bulla is also behind boil, the papal bull (the round seal on papal edicts), bullion, bullet and bulletin.



From the Bodlian library MS 264,fol.21v, University of Oxford. The illustrations from this manuscript are by a Flemish artist,Jehan de Grise  in 1344. The marginilia are filled with playful images including the bowling trio above. Read more here.

James Naismith , a Canadian and qualified doctor, physical education instructor and minister, athletically adept in: lacrosse, rugby, gymnastics, swimming, fencing, track and field, responded to the challenge of rowdy, energetic students going stir-crazy during the blizzard filled winter months of 1891 by creating the game of basketball. In the clip here from We the People you can hear the 77 year old Naismith discuss his first game of basketball – a tackling, kicking, punching game resulting in several black eyes, a concussion and a dislocated shoulder! In the controversial 1936 Olympics in Berlin, basketball was played with 23 nations participating and James Naismith handed out the medals- all to American teams. No such scrummages and tackling in the games we watched last weekend despite the fierce competition!

Thinking about words can happen on the spur of the moment. Word research can be motivated by a book, news, a conversation, poetry, song. The lessons can extend over days, weeks or like this exploration, a quick and bracing plunge into the morphological and etymological oceans. Basketball has has helped students to solidify morphological and etymological understandings, we’ve followed the elements through time using a variety of resources, followed false leads, but been the richer for this and walked to the court appreciative of Naismith, balls and baskets.