Eponym Series – Rugby

Hello,

With the group stages of the Ruby World Cup almost complete in Japan, it’s a good time to dip back into my nonfiction book “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” (available in paperback and ebook formats on Amazon US, Amazon UK, Kindle, Kobo, Apple Books, and Overdrive). Why? Because rugby is an eponym. Well, it’s a toponym actually (a word named for a place) so this week the word history of rugby is about the word, the people, and the place.

{extract from “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” copyright Grace Tierney}

The sport of rugby, a fast game of kicking and running with an oval ball involving moves like line-outs, rucks, mauls, and scrums, is named for the private boys’ school Rugby.

Popular legend has it that the game was created in 1823 when William Ellis Webb with a fine disregard for the rules of football (soccer) took the ball in his arms and ran with it. There’s little proof this actually happened but it is so firmly entrenched in the minds of rugby players and supporters worldwide that when they came to name the Rugby World Cup trophy they called it after Webb. Webb played cricket, but not rugby, for Oxford University and became a clergyman.

Early forms of soccer had been played since the Middle Ages, and probably even in Roman times as a game called harpastum. It often resembled a mob rather than a sport with the entire village on one side or the other. Each side struggled to kick an inflated pig’s bladder through the town to markers to win.

Predictably the wildness of these games led them to be outlawed. In the period 1314-1527 nine European monarchs outlawed the playing of football and encouraged their subjects to practice their archery instead which was a nice useful skill for warfare. Youths continued to play football.

Saint Paul’s School Rugby Team in the 1950s

By 1750, the game of football, as played at the school in Rugby, allowed the handling of the ball and still involved huge numbers of players on each side, but nobody was allowed run with it in their hands towards the goal, at least until Webb presumably gave it a go. The introduction of running with ball in hand happened there sometime between 1820 and 1830 and was probably met with outrage on this “breaking” of the rules. However by 1841 it had become an essential part of the game. Rugby and soccer were different sports from that time.

The game, and its formal code of rules, came to be played at other private boys’ schools and gradually crept into mainstream sporting life. By 1871 the Rugby Football Union was founded and more detailed rules drawn up. Wasps, a well-known rugby union club, missed out on being a founding member of the Rugby Football Union because their representative went to the wrong pub for the meeting.

Later the sport spawned American football and Australian Rules football. In 1876 there was a schism, largely down to money and class issues, in the rugby world that resulted in rugby union and rugby league and eventual changes in rules on both sides.

In 1995 rugby union became a professional sport. The first Rugby World Cup was played in 1987. The winner gets the Webb Ellis Cup in memory of the man who probably didn’t invent the game at Rugby School, England.

Many of the national rugby union sides have nicknames, often related to animals – the Springboks (South Africa), All Blacks (New Zealand), les Bleus (France), the Wallabies (Australian), los Pumas (Argentina), the Eagles (U.S.A.), and the Dragons (Wales).

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Consider supporting this blog by buying my eponym book. Then you can read more about the people who gave their names to the English language and their extraordinary lives. Everybody from chefs to fashion icons are there, from villains to scientists and inventors. It’s a perfect book for dipping into, packed with wordy trivia and history. All the book details are here.

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