Death roll, leapfrog, and dambuster: the language of croquet
Now that spring and sunshine have reached Oxford, the croquet season has begun in earnest in college quads. Its reputation as a civilized, gentle pastime is confirmed by some of the terms used by players of the game: tea lady, dolly rush, trundle, and pirie poke. But the game has a nastier side too, witnessed by the words used to describe the tactics employed by its more competitive exponents: aggressive spread, crunch up, death roll, and worse than death. Other more recondite terms, such as Swiss gambit, Wharrad turn, Solomon Bisque, and Whichelo variation, conjure up an image of a version of chess played outside.
The aim of the game
The aim of the game is to strike a ball with a mallet so as to send it through a series of hoops, also termed wires or arches. In the United States these are known as wickets (from the Anglo-Norman form of French guichet ‘gate’). A number of more subtle strokes have been devised by accomplished players, such as the jump-stroke, or leapfrog, designed to cause the ball to jump up by striking it into the ground – a useful way of avoiding other balls, or getting through narrow hoops from oblique angles. A shot that causes the ball to jump several times is termed a dambuster, after the bouncing bomb devised by British engineer Barnes Wallis for use during the Second World War. If the ball fails to pass through the hoop and remains lodged in the jaws, it is known as a blob.
Instead of attempting to go through a hoop, a player may adopt the more aggressive ploy of striking his ball against that of an opponent (known as the enemy). This shot is termed a roquet, an altered form of croquet, perhaps triggered by confusion in a phrase such as ‘take croquet’, which can be misheard as ‘take roquet’. Following the successful striking of an opponent’s ball, a player may place his own ball alongside that of the opponent and smash it in any direction. This shot is known as a croquet, although the terms roquet and croquet are commonly used interchangeably by the uninitiated. Muddling up these terms is a fatal solecism and a sure way of revealing yourself to be a novice to other players. Another embarrassing blunder is to inadvertently strike another player’s ball while playing a croquet, known as a Christ off. This term originates in 1980s Cambridge; it was coined in tribute to a hapless pair of players from Christ’s College who were particularly prone to this gaffe. A particularly aggressive croquet can result in the opponent’s ball being sent to Hong Kong, that is, beyond the boundaries of the court. More subtle is the tactic of taking an opponent’s ball captive – or making it a slave – enabling you to play multiple consecutive roquets.
Country life and Aunt Emmas
An important tactic when playing doubles is known as peeling: the practice of knocking your partner’s ball through a hoop so as to keep the two balls together. This strategic ploy is named after Walter Hayward Peel (d. 1897), founder of the United All England Croquet Association, a leading exponent of the practice. More abstruse versions of this move have been developed, such as the Aspinall Peel, defined in such terms as to mystify all but the most devoted acolyte: ‘a peel attempt which is made (generally from an acute angle) with the intention of initially jawsing the peelee. As part of the same stroke, the striker’s ball continues to re-strike the peelee and complete the peel by cannoning it through the hoop’.
Once a ball has passed through all the hoops in the correct sequence, all that is required to claim the game is to peg out by striking the ball against the winning-peg. An alternative move is to peg-out your opponent’s ball, by knocking it against the winning-peg, thus causing it to be disqualified. This can be a risky strategy, as noted in this account from Country Life: ‘He had attempted to peel black and peg it out but it had not worked, and that was life—and croquet’. Instead of pegging-out immediately, a player may choose to remain in play as a rover, disrupting other players and generally getting in the way, in order to help one’s partner. But be warned: this tactic of hindering one’s opponent rather than attempting to make progress is generally frowned upon by true aficionados; players adopting this tactic are known as Aunt Emmas, and considered to be rather dull exponents of the game.