The language of snooker
Snooker is a nineteenth-century development of the much older game of billiards, which dates back as far as the sixteenth century. Billiards gets its name from the French word billard ‘cue’, a diminutive form of bille ‘stick’. Once adopted into English the word was pluralized, on the model of other games such as draughts and bowls, giving us billiards, or ‘little sticks’. The game of snooker gets its name from a Woolwich slang term for a newly-recruited cadet; it is believed to have been transferred to the game when an army colonel stationed in Jabalpur used it to describe the poor play of a fellow officer. Another related game is a nineteenth-century American development of billiards, in which players pot balls in order to claim the collective stake or pool, from which the game gets its name. This word, most commonly used today in card games, may be related in some obscure way to the French poule ‘hen’.
Hazards, cannons, and Postman’s knock
The aim of snooker is to use the cue ball to knock the various coloured balls into the pockets – known as hazards in billiards. In billiards points are also scored for a shot in which the cue ball glances off one ball onto another. This shot was known by the French term carambole, also an alternative name for the game itself; although it is no longer a scoring shot, the cannon – a corruption of carambole – is still known in modern snooker.
Sadly, many of the exotic terms associated with billiard shots – the Postman’s knock, Losing Hazard, Floating White, and Long Jenny – have not been transferred to snooker. Hitting the cushion first and connecting with another ball on the rebound is termed a double in snooker; in billiards this was known by the name of the bricole: an ancient military catapult. Failure to connect with any ball results in a foul shot; if a snooker player is deemed not to have made sufficient effort to hit the ball a miss is called, requiring the shot to be replayed. In billiards a deliberate miss designed to leave the cue ball in the comparative safety of the baulk area is known as a miss in baulk. The word baulk derives from an Old English word for an unploughed ridge, which later developed the sense of obstacle. Its use in billiards derives from this later meaning, since a player is not allowed to strike a ball that is in baulk directly.
Beyond the game
Some terms from the game have entered wider use. The phrase miss in baulk enjoyed some currency in the early twentieth century as a general term for deliberately avoiding doing an unappealing task or seeing an unwelcome person; it is particularly associated with the novels of P.G. Wodehouse, whose hero Bertie Wooster spends much of his time trying to avoid the attention of ferocious aunts. When a player is unable to hit the required ball because it is covered by one or more of the other balls, he is said to be snookered, a term which is now commonly used to refer to any difficult situation. Failure to make a clean contact with the cue ball results in a miscue, now in extended use to refer to any kind of mistake or misjudgement. As well as giving us words for shunning unpleasant tasks, finding ourselves in impossible situations and making embarrassing blunders, snooker is the origin of another word we can all relate to: the fluke – the name given to a shot whose happy outcome was more luck than judgement.