Fashion Faux Pas on the Queen’s Birthday
When Queen Charlotte’s day-long birthday celebration concluded with a ball at St. James Palace on 18 Jan. 1785, an unwitting guest wore a gown far too fashion forward for the Georgian court:
One conſpicuous Lady, though her name was not to be in general diſcovered, ſported a black body and pink ſleeves. Every body ſtared—many laughed, and the outre habit was ſo much condemned that the Lady departed at an early hour. — Hibernian Magazine Feb. 1785, 82.
What this unlucky woman either didn’t know or chose to ignore was that the dress required at such court events had two crucial characteristics: it must be exorbitantly expensive, yet conservative to the point of anachronism. Pink and black was simply too daring a color combination to celebrate the consort of King George III.
What did come into fashion only a year or so earlier, however, was the verb to sport, meaning to wear or display something distinctive or distinctively:
To Sport. To exhibit: as, Jack Jehu sported a new gig yesterday : I shall sport a new suit next week. To sport or Hash one's ivory ; to shew one’s teeth. To sport timber ; to keep one's outside door shut : this term is used in the inns of court to signify denying one’s self. N. B. The word sport was in great vogue ann. 1783 and 1784. — Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (2nd ed.), London, 1788.
This entry is echoed fifteen years later in a dictionary of Cambridge University slang:
TO SPORT. A word sacred to men of fashion. Whatever they do, is nothing but sporting. ‘One man sports a parodoxical walking-stick,’ (Grose's Olio.) — Another sports his hat at noon-day— sports his dog, and his gun — sports his shooting-jacket. — Gradus ad Cantabrigiam: A Dictionary of Terms, Academical and Colloquial & Cant, which are used at the University of Cambridge, 1803, 126.
These two dictionary entries give a fairly precise date of the word’s expanding popularity in Georgian England, its informal register, and its social provenance among wealthy elites with a sense of style. It also suggests the semantic jump from amusement, entertainment, or relaxation: “nothing but sporting” pretty much defines the leisure class. To sport clothing or other trappings of wealth, then, was to engage in a bit of self-promoting theater.
This is also the source for various modern dictionaries still maintaining the informal, colloquial register of the verb (Random House, Collins) as well as some sense of ostentation (these two plus Merriam-Webster), although the vast majority of contemporary uses — especially with inanimate subjects — are swagger-free.
Ultimately, any use of sport as noun or verb in any language goes back to one particular meaning of Old French desporter in which the literal sense of dis- ‘away’ + port ‘bear/carry’ had given way to “carrying away” from drudgery or unpleasantness: to amuse, refresh, or entertain (oneself), much like one sense of the word diversion. In Middle English, this yielded both the more original disport/desport and the more familiar sport, which simply dropped the unaccented first syllable in a linguistic process known as apheresis:
Whiles þei on þe stronde leye, Þei no thyng dide but disporte and playe. — John Lydgate, Troy Book 1.742, c.1420.
Fair brothre, come and sporte you in my chaumbre, ye and your knyght. — Anon., King Ponthus 73/26, c. 1450.
While these verbal twins continue to occupy similar semantic spaces, they eventually diverge in register: sport remains more informal while disport graces formal rhetoric and poetry, in the 18th century almost exclusively so. Sport also ceases to function as a reflexive verb, while disport continued.
Addison and Steele’s Adverbials
With particular economy, Joseph Addison uses sport to denote the manner in which an action is performed — as amusement or recreation — yet the action itself is only implied.
Thus Claudian, having got a hollow ball of cryſtal with water in the midſt of it for his ſubject:, takes the advantage of conſidering the cryſtal as hard, ſtony, precious water, and the water as ſoft, fluid, imperfect cryſtal; and thus ſports off above a dozen epigrams [Epigrams 6–14], in ſetting his words and ideas at variance among one another. — Joseph Addison, “Notes on Some of the Foregoing Stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses” (1697) in: The Miscellaneous Works in Poetry and Prose, v. 1, ed., Thomas Tickell, London, 1745, 287.
This usage so impressed the lexicographer John Ogilvie that he included it in his Supplement to the Imperial Dictionary (1850), defining sport off as “to throw off with easy and playful copiousness.”
Describing a love poem written in one of the Sami languages of Lapland, a letter to Mr.Spectator again verbs an adverb:
The numbers in the original are loose and unequal, as those in which the British ladies sport their Pindaricks ; and perhaps, the fairest of them might not think it a disagreeable present from a lover. — Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, The Spectator No. 366, 30 April 1712 (ed. Robert Bisset, London, 1794, 398).
English versions of a Pindaric ode — In Spectator no. 160 condemned as “monstrous compositions” — employed irregular meter, stanza length, and rhyme scheme, a boon to amateur poets — the “British ladies” presumably writing verse for their own amusement — who substitute freedom of form for skill.
Though this usage is sometimes adduced as an early example of “to display or exhibit, esp. in public or company,” so the NED(9/1, 1919), the most appropriate synonym for the implied verb is to couch, that is, just as Claudian turns out epigrams as if their composition were an easy entertainment, the British ladies churn out “monstrous” Pindarics for fun. The action in both cases is one of writing poetry, not displaying or exhibiting it. Compare, for instance, an earlier convergence of writing poetry and amusing oneself:
Afterward as appeareth by Euſtachius there were ſome Greekes diſported themſelves heerein [composing anagrams], as he which turned Atlas for his heavie burthen, in ſupporting heaven to Talas, that is, wretched, Aret, Virtue into Erate, that is, louely, Ilares, merry, into Liaros, that is, warme. — William Camden, Remaines of a greater work, concerning Britaine, London, 1605.
Addison could have easily updated this passage so that Greeks were sporting anagrams, but neither Addison’s remarks on Claudian nor Spectator 366’s British ladies are the forerunner of sporting distinctive clothing.
The First Attestations
To sport meaning to wear or display something distinctive or distinctively emerges in the second half of the 18th century, and as Grose suggests, becomes widespread in the 1780s.
His reverence interrupted the baronet, by unluckily mentioning Holland; or rather lucky for us, for if he had not, we perhaps might still have remained ignorant about it, and my grandfather missed the opportunity of sporting his historical abilities … — William Donaldson, The Life and Adventures of Sir Bartholomew Sapskull, Baronet, 1768, 31.
This early attestation has someone showing off historical knowledge in a company of people. Given the nature of this social satire, interrupting the baronet with a discourse on the Netherlands is likely a good thing.
… or perhaps our emblematical ladies may mean to ſhew the firmneſs of their virtue in the ſtability of their figure : as a certain lady exhibited a ſow and pigs, to repreſent the filthineſs of the head, and the ſenſuality of the mind: another ſported a windmill to ſymbolize the inconflancy of the ſex; and many appeared at court with cluſters of fruit upon their heads, to ſignify that in all ſeaſons they ripened into folly in the atmoſphere of a drawing-room. — Monthly Review, v. 55, Sept. 1776, 188.
Winter coming on, I found it neceſſary to change my dreſs; my velvet was laid by—but, alas !—never ſhall I forget the fatal day—the firſt time I had ſported a cotton coat, with dimity waiſtcoat and breeches, in the middle of December, I was ſeized with a violent fit of the rheumatiſm, which confined me to my room for ſix weeks. — The London Magazine, Nov. 1780, 506.
The fortune hunter sports a suit of lace … — Hannah Crowley, A Bold Stroke for a Husband : a Comedy, London, 1784.
A cornetcy of dragoons was his firſt eſſay in life, and no young man ſported a larger cockade or was more remarkable for the ſmart cut of his regimentals than the gay Narciſſo. — Anonymous, The modern Atalantis; or, The devil in an air balloon, London,1784, 20.
He purchaſed a freehold in Middleſex, qualified himſelf (which indeed is eaſily done) for a juſtice of the quorum, took out his dedimus, and for the firſt time, at the quarter ſeſſions, ſported a ruffled ſhirt; he had an eye to a cue wig, but his barber diſſuaded him from having one, ſaying that none but 'prentices and porters now wore them. — Town and Country Magazine, July 1785, 376.
The ducheſs of Devonſhire ſported a moſt beautiful fancy dreſs; the body of laylock ſattin, the coat and train of white gauze, ornamented with flowers, and the whole covered with a black gauze veil, ſpotted with filver. — Town and Country Magazine, June 1786, 316.
Cheer’d by her preſence Commerce ſpreads the ſail,
Forſakes the port and courts the favouring gale;
Exulting bears what diſtant lands produce,
And sports the varied treaſure for our uſe. — “For the Glorious Anniversary of Independence,” Gazette of the United-States (New York), 4 July 1789.
… she at length leaned out of the Window in the Position you see her, and in the Innocence of her Heart would probably have sported a Smile upon them. — Alexander Bicknell, Painting Personified; or, the Caricature and Sentimental Pictures of the principal Artists of the present times fancifully explained, v.2, London, 1790,169.
After sporting his fancy, in developing the hidden and fruitful ſprings of returning proſperity, the minister [William Pitt the Younger] concluded with the following memorable words … — T. A. Lloyd, The History of England, from the peace in 1783. To the present time, London 1796, 167.
Beyond the super-sized cockade and the ruffled shirt — worn by a recent lottery winner who wants a wardrobe to match — ostentatious display doesn’t seem to play a role. If the Duchess of Devonshire’s fancy dress was ostentatious, it was supposed to be. And with no pink to mar the black, white, and silver.
The Twin Disport
The more etymologically conservative twin of to sport is at home in the highest registers, most commonly a reflexive verb until the late 18th century, when under the influence of its informal twin it becomes a more formal way of saying the exact same thing: to wear or display. In poetry it can evoke graceful movement or the play/display of light or color:
Joyous the birds; fresh gales and gentle airs
Whispered it to the woods, and from their wings
Flung rose, flung odours from the spicy shrub,
Disporting, till the amorous bird of night
Sung spousal, and bid haste the e’vning star
On his hill top, to light the bridal lamp. — John Milton, Paradise Lost 515–520, 1667.
… to ſee how ſweetly the Troops of Snow-white feathered Swans ruffled their plumes, and diſported themſelves therein, in their Majeſtical and ſtately bravery … — John Reynolds, The triumphs of God’s revenge against the crying and execrable sin of murther, 6th ed., London,1679.
Some two decades after the first attestation of to sport as wear/display, however, disport begins to inhabit the same semantic field:
… If round the keel
Of sweet Arion dolphins ever play'd,
Or blithsome nereids to the pleasing mood
Of Orpheus danc'd, while Argo plough 'd the deep;
They now had felt controlment as in bonds,
Not on their pliant, azure-glossy fins
Disporting light, but rigid with amaze
At this majestic muse. — Richard Glover. Atheniad, London, 1787, reviewed in: The English Review 11, Mar. 1788.
And on I went, disporting Fancy's wreath,
Cheer'd by the beauteous charmer ; and beguil'd
To haunts of peace, pure, blooming, undefil'd,
Where Love could riot in elysian rest, … American Watchman (Wilmington DE), 12 March 1822.
The birds, in throngs, disported their many-colored plumage among them, and sang their morning hymns, in songs and voices that I had never heard before. —New England Magazine 6/4 (April 1834), 265-278. COHA
Ah, then wait till this sad looking foot, Nannie dear :
Once again shall disport the gay shoe; … — Alexandria Gazette (DC), 7 June 1839.
Nannie dear, as the poem explains, suffers from gout.
In the 19th century, disport descends from its Miltonian heights to appear in the daily press while dictionaries still insist that to sport with a virtually identical meaning is colloquial.
The soil is a fine, rich marl, and nature, profuse in life and multiform in loveliness, has exerted her powers in turning it to the best account. In some places, she has disported her creative efforts, and wrought without the apparent aid of earth, as though her object was to show the wonders of her skill in the merest caprices.— The Catholic Telegraph (Cincinnati) 4/25, 15 May 1835.
The entertainments wound up with the racy Plantation Jig, in which Miss Lucy Long disported her figure in the improved Bloomer’s costume, which, according to the playbill, “has created such a sensation in the world of fashion.” — The Courier (Hobart TAS), 18 Jul. 1854.
To any one who has been present at the debates of the Assemblée Constituante at Paris, in 1848, this description of Roman oratory will not bear a character of exaggeration; but to an English audience, we repeat, it may be doubted whether an orator who disported himself in this fashion would not seem somewhat absurd. — Quarterly Review 115/229 (Jan. 1864) 73.
The costume worn in D'Avenant's time was probably the Court dress of the period, since we know that long afterwards Quin disported himself in a periwig and the uniform of a brigadier-general, while the silver-tongued Barry, the elder Sheridan, and Garrick followed suit, minus the periwig. — John Coleman, “Facts and Fancy about Macbeth,”Gentleman’s Magazine 266/2 (Feb. 1889), 218.
Contemporary advertisements will enlighten us on some of the characteristics of the fine clothes in which our exquisites then disported themselves. As, for instance, “Stolen [&c.], a new cinnamon-colour Cloth coat, Waistcoat, and Breeches, embroidered with silver four or five inches deep down before, and on the sleeves, and round the pocket-holes and the pockets and knees of the Breeches. They are lined with a sky-blue silk.” — W. H. Davenport Adams, “The Story of the Coat,” Part 2, Gentleman’s Magazine 267 (Dec. 1889), 587.
This last citation shows in reverse how an Old French verb meaning to amuse oneself can expand to embrace the wear/display field which sport began to inhabit in Georgian England. Disporting oneself in fine clothes is merely sporting them in a somewhat higher register.
Sport with Inanimate Subjects
Around the time of the American Civil War, sport began to be used with impersonal, inanimate subjects, now a quite common usage. While a sense of display/exhibit may remain, any connotation of amusement has disappeared.
The business streets sported a busy show, all day; and that portion of them occupied by dry goods stores were thronged with ladies in the pleasant hours of afternoon … — Rocky Mountain News (Denver), 19 Dec. 1864.
In a few moments more every house sported a flag. — California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences (San Francisco), 12 May 1865.
In current usage, most appropriate synonym for sport with inanimates is to feature or to boast — and sometimes simply to have:
The interior sports a standard combination of leather and cloth with loads of contrast stitching and — you guessed it — more Audi S logos. — Roadshow - CNet, 3 Oct. 2018.
This South Island home sports a black and white exterior with strong street appeal. — Trends Ideas
It [2015 MacBook] features an all-metal enclosure with antennas embedded right inside. It sports a full-sized keyboard that runs to the edges of the notebook. — Technobuffalo, 9 Mar. 2015.
Just War Theory sports a generous and enlivening tradition stretching back to the days of St. Augustine, with a multitude of alterations and additions contributing to its philosophical history. — J. J. Brewer, “Iraq, Reconsidered,” 20 Apr. 2012.
This last example shows that virtually anything, including abstracts, can now sport a quality or feature as long as it is somehow distinctive or noteworthy. Its appearance in an academic article also suggests that at least for some speakers, the verb is losing its colloquial feel.