Saturday, August 18, 2012


According to last week’s Spectator, the game of Badminton is “the pâté de foie gras of Olympic sports.” That was before the game-throwing scandal was exposed in London, and those Chinese, Korean, and Indonesian players disqualified. If the delicate, cork-and-goose-feather shuttlecock once floated back and forth over nets suspended in arbors, conservatories or on wide verandahs, affording much enjoyment to her ladyship, the colonel, and their guests, it is now propelled with grim menace by pairs of muscularly perspiring Amazons either locked in mortal combat, or else prepared clumsily to dump a match. The idea of disqualification for fraudulent conduct in the game of Badminton would surely have struck Victorian ladies and gentlemen as the height of improbability, but there it is. However, I am concerned here with the origins of the game. The Spectator goes on to state that Badminton was “invented in India by the British army, and brought back to Blighty in 1873 at a party given by the Duke of Beaufort at his country estate, hence the name.” Something about this struck an inauthentic note, so I checked. Sure enough, this claim is squarely contradicted by the Oxford English Dictionary in the article on badminton, n., and in suspiciously proximate language: “A popular tradition about the origins of the modern game, according to which it is said to have been developed by British army officers in India, and to have been so named after a version of the game which was played at Badminton House in 1873 by officers on leave, is not borne out by the evidence, although versions of the game were popular among the British in India by 1873.” (Unambiguous citations of shuttlecock, n., meanwhile, extend helpfully all the way back to the sixteenth century.) According to the Academy (226, September 2, 1876, p. 233), “Shuttlecock tennis [also known as battledore and shuttlecock] was probably played in some form or other in many private houses long before it received the meaningless or misleading name of “Badminton,” but if we go back two centuries or so we find it played also sometimes in tennis courts; so that this, as well as the ball-out-door-game [of tennis], is a revival, not an invention.” For some reason the issue must have been topical in September 1876, because according to the unsigned article “Varieties” that appeared a few weeks later in The Leisure Hour (1135, September 27, 1873, p. 624), “the game of battledore and shuttlecock is becoming popular in certain high circles of society, where it is known as ‘Badminton.’” Battledore and shuttlecock was certainly commonplace in England by 1852, when the following brief notice about a book for young people entitled The Heiress in her Minority [apparently a work by the notable political economist Jane Marcet] appeared in the Athenaeum (1266, January 31, 1852, p. 150):
On the whole, the book is a small, readable, compressed cyclopaedia, with a copious index and distinct chapter headings—a very mine for youth, and a happy anodyne for the restless hours of a wet day in a country house, when “bat and ball” are forbidden, the skipping-rope is laid aside, and les graces, battledore and shuttlecock, archery, and other amusements of the same genus are impossible.
However, the name badminton was certainly in use by 1863, though apparently not yet so widespread as to remove the need for explanation, because in December of that year an article entitled “Life in a Country House” (The Cornhill Magazine, 8:48, p. 711) stated:
After lunch, everybody is expected to hold themselves at the disposal of the lady of the house, for a ride, drive, or walk, as the case may be. If the weather be such as to induce you to remain within doors, your co-operation will be sought for a game at pool, badminton (which is battledore and shuttlecock played with sides, across a string suspended some five feet from the ground), and similar amusements.
Be that as it may, one of the more depressing things about Olympic sports is that they are in nature obviously about as distant from “amusements” as it is possible to be, so one wonders how corruption in Badminton will ever be eliminated. I daresay a Badminton doping scandal is not an inconceivable prospect.

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