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Rub of the green

Q From Gary Puckering: The winner of the BDO world darts championship was quoted on BBC’s sports site on 10 January as saying of his opponent in the final: “He maybe gave me too much rub of the green in the early sets but I’m happy with that”, presumably meaning that his opponent had played poorly. Some sites say this is a golfing expression, others that it comes from snooker. Would you care to comment?

A I’m not so sure that that was what Martin Adams meant, though it isn’t at all obvious from the quote. He could have been saying that his opponent was making life difficult for him as a result of his excellent play. That’s because rub of the green can mean either good or bad fortune in some sports event. You can think of it as being accompanied by a shrug. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. No accounting for how things turn out.

Presumably people associate it with snooker because of the green baize of the table. But it can’t be from that game because the earliest examples of the phrase long predate the appearance of snooker in the 1870s (it could be linked to billiards, as that game is much older, but the story specifically mentions snooker). It is often said to be associated with golf because the first known example is this:

Whatever happens to a Ball by accident, must be reckoned a Rub of the green.

Regulations of the Game of Golf adopted by the St Andrews Society of Golfers, 1812.

Similar phrasing has appeared in the rules of golf pretty much ever since, though in modern times it reads like a quaint survivor. The evidence, however, shows that it is older and was at first applied — as rub still is — to an obstacle in bowls (the sort that’s played on grass; they hadn’t thought of the ten-pin variety back then). This instance shows that a version close to the golfing phrase was indeed around a lot earlier:

It spoils their game by an unforeseen rub in the green.

The Righteous Man’s Refuge, by John Flavel, 1681.

The main reason why we find the phrase obscure today is that we’ve lost the relevant meaning of rub. Even before Flavel’s time, it had a figurative sense of a non-material hindrance or difficulty:

We doubt not now, But every Rubbe is smoothed on our way.

Henry V, by William Shakespeare, 1599. There’s also the famous line of Hamlet’s: “To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 13 Feb. 2010

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 13 February 2010.