Meanings: “Club”

October 22, 2012

I’m watching game seven of the NLCS, the National League Championship Series between the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals, the winner to lay claim to the National League Pennant and entry into the World Series against the ALCS Champion (A.L. pennant winning) Detroit Tigers.  The Giants, Cardinals and Tigers are baseball “clubs”.

“Clubs:” they are also “teams” but it is interesting that in no other American sport do we call the groups that compete “clubs.”  We speak exclusively of teams in football, basketball, and hockey.  Yes, in England they speak of football clubs, teams that play what most Americans call soccer.  In both cases (American Baseball, British football) the teams started as associations of young men who gathered together with a common interest in playing a sport and sought out other clubs to play against.  So baseball clubs have some affinity with other voluntary associations: bridge clubs and Rotary clubs and stamp collecting clubs.

Here’s the puzzle: why do we use the same word — “club” — for such voluntary associations and also for blunt objects used at times to beat others into submission.  (Sidenote: not because a stick is used in baseball: the wooden object baseball players use to hit the ball is always a “bat,” never a “club”.) suggests a connection:

club (n.) Look up club at
c.1200, “thick stick used as a weapon,” from O.N. klubba “cudgel,” from P.Gmc. *klumbon, related to clump. O.E. words for this were sagol, cycgel. Specific sense of “bat used in games” is from mid-15c. The social club (1660s) apparently evolved from this word 17c. from the verbal sense “gather in a club-like mass” (1620s), then “association of people” (1640s).

So it’s an old, dead metaphor, one given new life by Groucho Marx as the incomparable Rufus T. Firefly (Duck Soup):

“I got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.”

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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