Sporting vernacular No 11 DRIBBLE

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The Independent Online
"Dribble" aptly illustrates the characteristic oddness of sporting vernacular. Babies and others with minimal control over their faculties dribble, usually with their mouths, and usually they grow out of it. Footballers dribble, too, but usually with their feet - and they spend many hours learning the habit.

In 1880, the Times opined: "There is no more legitimate and scientific form of football than ... 'dribbling' with the feet." Twenty years earlier, the Football Annual had noted that the spread of dribbling skills was changing the character of the game: "The supporters of football appear now to have arranged themselves in two great and distinct factions; the 'dribblers' and the admirers of the running and hacking style." This split persists to some extent, but the subtext of the Football Annual's observation holds good: quality dribbling is a more exciting style of play than "running and hacking".

It isn't just football that has scope for use of this skill. In fact, all ball games can benefit from a bit of dribbling. It has been a part of gaming vernacular - from billiards to polo - for a very long time. The sporting use of the word seems to have origins in archery. "Believe it not that the dribbling dart of love can pierce a complete bosom," wrote a popular Elizabethan commentator in his play Measure for Measure.

The link between dribbling of a liquid and dribbling of a ball becomes clear when one watches a player who can weave a ball along a complicated series of twists and turns - who can do a "mazy dribble", as it is sometimes called. When the player's skill is such that the movement of the ball is smoothly liquid, they have achieved the dictionary definition of dribbling: "to let anything flow or fall in drops or a trickling stream".

Effortlessness, real or merely apparent, is the most essential part of the dribbler's art. Whether baby or footballer, the dribbler cannot appear to expend too much effort on their task, or else dribbling becomes spitting or even spraying. Pity the footballer (and the baby) who can't dribble but only sprays.