Why is putting some spin on a ball often called "putting some English" on it? Does it have anything to do with the history of billiards, the sport I most often see this phrase used? What's special about English, exactly?

I tried doing some research on Google, but all I could find was an article on ESPN that was too jocular for my taste.

  • 15
    This is not only a question about English, but also a question about “English.” Compared to this, other questions look off topic. Commented Aug 18, 2011 at 13:44
  • It's an interesting question: if interested, check out a device, a kind of tool, called the "English Wheel" - it would be used, for example, by classic car restorers. It's a similar kind of meaning.
    – Fattie
    Commented Aug 18, 2011 at 14:30
  • Possibly a reference to hall-of-fame basketball player Alex English. English is an all time top scorer, who scored with technique rather than strength or speed.
    – user111259
    Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 15:58
  • The phrase "Put some English on it" might be a reference to "Old English" a brand of furniture polish.
    – user196675
    Commented Sep 16, 2016 at 20:15
  • @user111259: This phrase is also used fairly often in basketball, when one lays up the ball against the backboard while putting some spin on it (example YouTube video). This move is sometimes attributed to Alex English, who played in the NBA 1976–91. But this attribution is probably wrong, because as the answers below show, this phrase has been used since at least the 19th century.
    – user38936
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 0:53

3 Answers 3


According to this thread, the OED speculates on its origins inconclusively.

Perhaps so named because English players introduced the technique to the U.S. (but see quot. 1959).

Quot. 1959 being:

1959 Sunday Times 5 Apr. 4/5 The billiard term ‘putting on the english’, which Atticus states is current parlance in American bowling circles. The story goes that an enterprising gentleman from these shores travelled to the United States during the latter part of the last century and impressed the Americans with a demonstration of the effect of ‘side’ on pool or billiard balls. His name was English.

According to Wikipedia, the term is chiefly American and not used by the British. My own guess (roughly in line with the OED), then, is that it comes from snooker being a British game, so it is likely that either the technique originated in England and was associated with English players for a time.

Alternatively, it could have been that there was simply the idea of the game being English, and so it may be expected that the highest standard of play would be found there. If someone demonstrated an impressive skill, perhaps there was the feeling that they were worthy of being associated with the game's parent country.

Further consideration: After looking into the origins of "English" vs "Body English". "English" was in the 1913 Webster Dictionary, so we know it was around by then. Apparently "English" has been in use since 1869 (more info from OED):

1869 ‘M. TWAIN’ Innocents Abroad xii. 116 You would infallibly put the ‘English’ on the wrong side of the ball.

1877 Chicago Daily Tribune 30 Sept. 8/1 He saw Richard Grant White..miss one shot badly through putting on too much side. ‘Too much English on that,’ said the spectator.

1898 R. HUGHES Lakerim Athletic Club xv. 242 Eaton would slash the ball with a stiffened wrist, an elbow swing, and a quick, hard jump into the air at the same time, to put the ‘English’ on.

1915 Manitoba Free Press Evening Bull. 31 Dec. 6/4 The average billiard player goes to the extreme in the use of ‘English’.

Etymology Online says the following without any backup:

"spin imparted to a ball" (as in billiards), 1860, from Fr. anglé "angled," which is similar to Anglais "English."

From all this, we can fairly safely say that this sense of the word "English" has been around since before 1900.

As for "Body English", Dictionary.com claims its origin as 1905-1910. A quote from the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms on answers.com says this:

Movements of the body that express a person's feelings, as in His body English tells us just how tired he is. This expression originated about 1900 in such sports as bowling and ice hockey, where a player tries to influence the path of a ball or puck by moving his body in a particular direction. (It was based on the earlier use of English to mean "spin imparted to a ball.")

Finally, according to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of "Body English" was 1908. Long after it's been known that "English" was in use.

So, as far as I can tell from the limited information available, it seems that "English" preceded "Body English".

  • 2
    Wouldn't "Body English" not be a variation of "Body Language"? Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 12:42
  • Yes, it has that meaning in the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, but but that quote claims that the term originated from the sports term. I don't know how early it was being used with similar meaning.
    – Samthere
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 9:17

After some research, I found some sources that indicate that it comes from the expression body english, which indicates the body gestures and movements that go with the speaking:

[...] Oddly enough, the origins of "English" don't appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, even though the word is right there on the cover. False advertising, sez I. However, other sources are pretty much in agreement. "English" comes from "body English," the contortions a thrower/roller/hitter goes through after the ball has left the hand/club/cue. These motions are called body English because they relate to the physical gestures we employ when we speak. Which is differentiated from "body language," emotions communicated through posture rather than gesture.

So, while "body English" is what we do after the ball is in motion, the term "English" is reserved to describe motion actually put on the ball by its spin. What do the English call "English"? "Side." As in "Don't hit it in the center, hit in on the ..." Sometimes the English make sense, even if "English" doesn't.

Emphasis mine. Taken from here.

There's similar stuff written in this forum:

ENGLISH: As you note in your question, "english" (always lower case) is spin put on a ball, usually but not always a billiard ball (baseball, tennis and golf balls can also be "englished"). The British call the same effect "side," because it is accomplished by striking the ball slightly off-center, thus imparting the spin. According to billiard experts, this spin allows the ball to do all sorts of remarkable things, such as curve, hide behind other balls, and disappear entirely when really needed. If I had paid attention back in high school physics while they were discussing vector momentum, I'd be able to explain how all this works, but I wasn't and can't, so I suppose we'll let the scientific discussion go at that.

As to why they call the spin "english," the answer turns out to be surprisingly simple. It is derived from the actions that the player makes to cause the ball to spin -- the extra gestures, physical effort and "oomph" we know as "body english." We call those contortions "body english," incidentally, because such physical gestures (waving your hands, hopping up and down, etc.) are sometimes used to boost to the expressive effect of our spoken English. [...]

Emphasis mine again.

Also some user reports the same in the link (the forum one) from the other answer. Hope it helps.

A little note: There is more in the forum stuff, I didn't report it for space-allocation reasons. I'm aware these might not be the most official or reliable sources, but there is nothing on dictionaries, which makes me think it's not something really that clear, yet. If anyone disagrees or wants to comment, feel free to.

  • 1
    After reading your answer I decided to do a bit more research to figure out which really came first. Check out the second half of my post; as far as I'm able to tell, "English" has been in use possibly from as early as 1869, whereas the earliest actual date I've been able to find about "Body English" is 1908.
    – Samthere
    Commented Aug 18, 2011 at 12:47

I've heard the phrase "put some English mustard on it". I always assumed "English" was just a shortening of the term.

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