Snookered, or, Why the British Talk That Way

By Fred Russell

Now that my Israeli cable provider has dropped ESPN, where I occasionally used to watch an eight-ball tournament, being a pool player myself, I have been reduced to watching snooker on British Eurosport, including the recently completed Dafabet Masters at London’s Alexandra Palace (“Ally Pally”). The tournament was played with the usual trappings of respectability – the players in “waistcoats” and bow ties, the ref in a tux and white gloves, though all of this was somewhat belied by the sleaziness of the sponsorships: C-Date “for casual dating,” which looked to me like a casual call girl service, and Dafabet itself, supplemented by Bet-at-Home, which looked to me like a casual home-wrecking service.

Snooker is a tougher game than American pool – bigger table, smaller balls, tighter pockets, harder cushions. Like American pool, it is also played professionally, so that as in America you have grown men spending the best years of their lives engaged in what has to be one of the most frivolous occupations on the face of the earth. Of course a fat wallet trumps everything in our world (and Judd Trump did in fact happen to walk away from the Masters with a £200,000 check in his waistcoat pocket), so who can argue with them as they bounce around the globe solemnly “potting” balls and ruing missed shots with pursed lips, perplexed or disappointed frowns, self-deprecating little shakes of the head, and occasionally even a full distended-lip baboon look. Yes, they pot balls, and naturally some pots are better than others and are therefore called good or even “cracking” pots by the British broadcasters who bring us these events in their inimitable way, informing us from time to time that someone-or-other has gone “thirty minutes without a pot,” though I’m still waiting to hear one of these bright lads tell us that some loser “doesn’t have a pot to piss in.”

Because the British talk funny. There is no getting around it. The question is how to characterize their speech. Most of us (Americans) would call it stiff or maybe fancy. Some would call it calcified or effete. In any case, it happens that the best place to examine their language is in fact among their sportscasters, because this is where you’d expect it to be the most relaxed, idiomatic, uninhibited, as among our own sportscasters. Soccer or “football” would be the wrong place to start, since it’s their game and they invented the idiom, so it’s American soccer broadcasting that sounds unnatural in the effort to make it sound American. Likewise, it would be unfair to judge the British by their basketball coverage, where they pathetically try to imitate the American idiom in a sport that is foreign to them. Tennis is a better proving ground since the British and the Americans each broadcast the matches in their own language; however, they end up sounding pretty much alike as the British style is perfectly attuned to the “gentlemanly” nature of the game, though the Americans don’t give you the constipated British a and rolling, theatrical r or the weird accents of their subsidiary races and working class people, who look perfectly normal to an American until they open their mouths. Of course, here and there in the tennis broadcasts you will encounter a Britishism that is symptomatic in the extreme of their entire language, such as the term “dry” volley for a forehand or backhand smash or volley (as opposed to an overhead smash). Only the British would choose such an awkward and unimaginative word in a sports context. Dry!

The one place where the two idioms – British and American – are on an equal footing is indeed in the game of pool – their snooker and a variety of pocket billiard games in America. Both have long traditions and both are rooted in the subculture of the poolroom (or “snooker club” in British parlance). Of course the announcers on both sides of the Atlantic are not poolroom bums but reasonably educated. Nonetheless they employ the idiom of the poolroom, or perhaps it is the pool or snooker players who adopt the idiom of the announcers, so that when players talk about the game in a formal way they sound exactly like the broadcasters.

Some of the language is of course identical – for example, kiss, safety, corner pocket, position, cue ball– and some of the differences are trivial – the American side pocket vs. the British middle pocket, for example – but some of the differences grate against the American ear. It may be unfair to judge the unfamiliar by the familiar, but there is also something intrinsically dull-witted in the way the British cling to formal language in their idiomatic speech. Who on this earth describing a game of pool would think to say that a player made a fine “contribution” on his “visit” to the table and perhaps “reduced the deficit” (i.e., cut his opponent’s lead); or refer to a lucky shot as a “fluke” a dozen times in the course of a game, which illustrates perfectly the inability of the British to get around “proper” words that are just a little too fancy or incongruous for the poolroom; or come up with “bottle” (as in “he has bottle”) for moxie, mettle or just plain guts. This last absurdity is fairly recent in the snooker broadcasts, coming from God knows where. I imagine it has something to do with drinking to get up your courage.

Here are a few parallel terms (British first):

cannon vs. carom

rest vs. bridge

screw vs. draw

side vs. English (sidespin)

sitter vs. hanger

double vs. bank shot

swerve vs. massé shot

knuckle vs. corner (of a pocket) or jaws instead of edge (of a pocket).

Leaving aside their preposterous “screw” for the American “draw,” which means there is more screwing going on in the course of a game than anyone wishes to hear about, as though the boys were busy little carpenters or oversexed jocks, this is still reasonable. But once you get past the terminology, what remains is the idiom, and here you will discover the language of the British in all its lameness, including the following locutions (this is a game, remember): dead weight; full-blooded (all-out); full ball (head-on); asked the question; it’s no gimme (for a shot that is harder than it looks); under the cosh (hard-pressed); on the cusp (of victory); a very attacking shot; done and dusted; he hasn’t been fortunate; a slightly rueful look; every credit; full marks; vulnerability; parity; faint hopes; fallen by the wayside; naughty; cross (angry); hampered; awkward cueing; cue school; three on the bounce, three on the spin (in a row); he doesn’t fancy (the shot); have done (“I like his game. I always have done”); and of course the distraught and ladylike “dear me” and “oh my.”

What makes these Britishisms stand out is that they are constantly being repeated, and that is because there isn’t really too much you can say about what is going on in a sports event. No two works of art are identical but all thin cuts and dead or combination shots (“plants” in the crippled British idiom) are pretty much the same, as are all crossovers and slam dunks in basketball, so whereas critics in the arts use varied language, seldom repeating themselves, sportscasters are always repeating themselves, and when the language is lame or prissy to begin with, as with the British sportscasters, the result is unmitigated tedium.

Why do the British talk this way? In an essay on Hebrew slang (Fred Skolnik, in ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 72, no. 2, April 2015), the question is parenthetically addressed as follows:

“H.L. Mencken put the blame on Samuel Johnson, claiming that by telling people how to talk his famous dictionary repressed the natural tendencies of the language. I wonder; for it is experience that produces character and it is character that produces language, though there is clearly a boomerang effect and once everything is in place, language itself shapes both character and our response to experience. I cannot say precisely how the British became what they are. Turner has given us a Frontier Hypothesis for the Americans and Michelet epitomized the Gallic or Celtic temperament very nicely in his Histoire de France, while we can see how the virulence of East European antisemitism shaped the self-effacing and fatalistic nature of East European Jews (made familiar to us via Yiddish humor). For the island races we have Sansom’s History of Japan telling us that Japanese reserve and formality came from the need to carve out personal space under overcrowded conditions, but the population of England barely reached 4 million in the Late Middle Ages and it is only later that its cities became giant cesspools. In any event, I suspect that the Elizabethans, irrespective of the niceness of their language, exhibited the same constipated manner of speaking as the British do today (though Noah Webster contended that 18th century American speech was closer to Shakespeare’s English than contemporary British speech), and that it is this characteristic emotional repression more than anything that has determined what they have done with their language. Part of this no doubt stems from geography – the northern clime does not encourage vitality – but the mix of Norse and Anglo-Saxon stock grafted onto an Old Roman base is absolutely deadly. To put it simply, the British are not an imaginative people, in the sense that the Americans are, and this comes through in their language (irrespective of the great imaginative writers they have produced), that is, in the transition from standard or public school English to colloquial English, something holds them back – is it tradition? – so that they find it difficult to think beyond the proper word or phrase. Thus British speech always hovers around the literal and the formal, while American English has clearly gone in the opposite direction, pulling toward the figurative and the graphic, for the simple reason that Americans are livelier than Englishmen and lack traditional restraints.”

I tend to agree.


This essay originally appeared in The Satirist at: