Football: The Great (Dictionary) Game

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all

All of which determined certainty goes to show that sitting on a wall is not at all the same as sitting on the fence – especially when your very name demonstrates that indeed you can make words mean so many different things: from a vertiginous drink of brandy and ale (no wonder he falls off his wall); through an obese and clumsy individual (more wall-falling explanations there, no doubt); to an old Civil War cannon in Colchester that supposedly did fall off its wall – and even unto the theory that it is a reference to Richard III and Bosworth Field, where the King (apparently, or so the argument goes) rode a horse called Wall – and – to cut a long story if not a long King short – off which he fell.

At which moment – if one excludes another theory that Humpty Dumpty refers to a siege engine based on the Roman testudo – we rather run into another wall; for Humpty, despite his shape, has a point, and words left to their own devices often turn out to be most unruly things indeed.

Of course, Alice climbed onto the mantelpiece and stepped through the looking glass a good hundred years and more after the rage for invention transformed the English landscape both socially and topographically and the entrepreneurs of the day realised that everything was really just a commodity that had a price – as Humpty indicates when musing on the temper of verbs as opposed to the tractability of adjectives and ends triumphantly with an exclamatory ‘Impenetrability!’ – going on to explain to Alice that that means an end to the subject, and what is she intending to do next as he supposes she doesn’t intend to spend the rest of her life talking with him:

‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’

Now the notion of paying words for the work they do might seem superficially amusing, even if on a deeper level it raises pertinent questions about the value we put on them and thus on language itself – but it precisely captures the new capitalism of the preceding century, where even Johnson’s great dictionary had commercial interests at its heart. For dictionaries are all about the industrialisation of language in exactly the same way as the new technologies in other fields were all about the commercial advantages of standardisation, economy and increased profitability. It was not so much a labour of love as a labour for payment – the contract signed with William Strahan and associates on 18 June 1746 being in the sum of 1500 guineas (or well over £200,000 in today’s money).

Mind you, there is no doubt that Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, eventually published in 1755, helped avoid serious social unrest a decade later when confusion arose over James Hargreaves’ invention of the ‘Spinning Jenny’. As Trevelyan almost pointed out [in an obscure footnote in his commentary A Shortened History of England for the Vertically Challenged (new edition, 1994)] the ferociously single-minded and somewhat repetitive single-issue animal welfare group Opposition to Cruelty to Donkeys (OCD) narrowly avoided making asses of themselves when they finally accepted that the name was not a description of an ingenious way of powering the shuttles but a reference to Hargreaves’ daughter, Jenny, who knocked over the family spinning wheel and gave him the idea – presumably by continuing to spin after her father applied appropriate chastisement in the time-honoured fashion; and thus demonstrating that other great British tradition of ignoring the maltreatment of children.

Although Johnson was by no means the first linesman to attempt a dictionary he was influential in the development of the game for which the British claim the credit – ASSOCIATION FOOTBALL. Although the first rules were not codified until a century later, it is believed by many to have started at around the time of Johnson’s first draft of his masterwork, when the etymological structure was not fully defined or in operation, and his historical references (which led him to be called the first referee) were not so developed as in later publications. Whereas today, for example, we know that prune and prude derive from different language systems (from Greek via Latin in the first instance, and from Old French in the second – somewhat ironic, given that most old French people are far from prudish) this was not so in the mid-eighteenth century. Instead, and quite understandably, it was felt that the obvious shared characteristics between a shrivelled dried fruit and a shrivelled dried attitude to life were reflected in the mutual ‘pru’ structure – possibly echoed in the great itchiness caused by prurigo and certainly reflected in the behaviour of the prurient and their unfortunate tendency to scratch themselves in unfortunate places (generally accepted as anywhere there was a passing policeman).

Beginning as a solitary pursuit quietly followed in the privacy of one’s room – one thinks immediately of Mr Bennett’s determined solitude in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – the hobby (a favourite pursuit followed as an amusement rather than a smallish horse or smaller falcon) gradually spread its wings (thus using the playfulness of association to create a metaphor) and began to include wider groupings of players. Thus the tracing of the perceived associations between words directly led to the formation of larger associations of players who were attacked by critics for busying themselves with silly nonsense, or ‘footling their time away’. The first gatherings of these associations became great social occasions known as ‘footle balls’ – which through the subtle osmosis of subsequent elision gradually became ‘football’ (see Liddell-Hart’s classic 1847 volume The English Lexicon – It’s All Greek To Me).

Interestingly, this last reference introduces an element of circularity, in that the Alice with whom Humpty Dumpty was speaking was, of course, the daughter of the co-author, Dean Liddell – what a small world!

In its classic form ASSOCIATION FOOTBALL was limited to the leisured classes, who had the freedom to consider vocabulary in its non-functional dimensions in a way beyond the resources of the great mass of those unfortunate enough to see in the industrial revolution only greater possibilities of illiteracy and illness rather than idleness, and for whom vocabulary was just another word – and an unpronounceable one at that. But things began to change with the introduction of the Elementary Education Act of 1870, when it was recognised that if a little learning is a dangerous thing a little education was an increasingly necessary one, despite the disadvantages of it possibly encouraging people to think – an unjustified fear that demonstrated a lack of faith in the ability of the civil service to strangle any worthwhile enterprise if not at birth at least in infancy – the fruits (dried and otherwise) of which still litter the streets today.

Thankfully, the exponential demands of modernisation and capitalist development first engendered around the time of Johnson’s dictionary nonetheless found expression in the long years following through the inexorable political imposition of public school values on the incipient state system; and in the recognition that regulations had to change if the activity was to develop mass appeal and become a viable lens through which to view broader patterns of social control – and thus become an early means of encouraging a more docile population before the happy invention of television. One of the big changes at the beginning of the Twentieth Century was the rewriting of the rules to admit the use of associations through related sounds rather than the more limited classic focus on lexical structure, enshrined in ‘The Ho(a)rse Trade-Off Agreement’ – generally regarded as the beginning of the modern transfer system. Whilst this undoubtedly encouraged greater participation by a wider range of people, some social historians follow Harold Perkins (see his 1981 collection The Structured Crowd: Essays in English Social History) and Edward Thompson’s pioneering 1963 work The Making of the English Working Class, and extend their basic insights to argue that the insular latent hostility to the influx of alien ideas (not only from adjacent streets but increasingly from Europe) seized on this shift and developed into one of the curses of the modern game – homophonia.

This democratisation of prejudice inevitably attracted the attention of the game’s contemporary cousin of associations, the emerging profession of psychology. In the early stages the psychological focus was on the sublimation of sexual frustration – again, one thinks of Jane Austen – as in Sigmund Freud’s 1959 exploration Delusions and Dreams: Goals and Wish-Fulfilment. Of course, it is possibly helpful to place this whistle-blowing revelation in some sort of perspective by recalling that Freud single-handedly put the anal into analysis. Offsetting this is the ground-breaking work of his daughter Anna, whose 1968 paper The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence: The Offside Trap revolutionised tactical thinking by offering a dynamic synthesis inclusive of both strands through her up-front proposition that both lexical and homophonic structures were able to be accommodated via ‘the mid-field strategy’ – which has gone on to dominate play at all levels ever since.

So the sport continues to prosper, despite its increasing commercialisation and the modern trend (as in all good dictionaries) to put profits before prophets. There seems little danger that it will disappear from the social arena even given the recent tendency to rename other arenas in somewhat overblown terms.

But perhaps William Archibald Spooner sounded a small alarm bell in a little-known 1869 inaugural lecture on theology and language – Summa Theologica: Questions and Answers – where after quoting Aquinas to show that league tables were indeed a first principle:

… this is the first precept of the law, that good is to be done and promoted

he commented that, although dictionaries had undoubtedly proved their worth by organising words into regimented columns that could wage war upon illiteracy, they remained essentially ineffective against dyslexia. For all their advantages, he remarked, it remained a certainty that there would still be smelling pistakes.

© Mike Liddell 2019