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Pall-mall

Pronounced /ˌpælˈmæl/Help with pronunciation

Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary for 2 April 1661: “So I into St. James’s Park, where I saw the Duke of York playing at Pelemele, the first time that ever I saw the sport.” Its name was more usually spelled pall-mall, but he wrote it as he heard it in upper-class speech. Pepys saw it played where London’s Pall Mall now runs (the game was the direct origin of the street name) but the course was shifted later that same year, it is said because dust from royal carriages disrupted games. The new course was about 800 yards (740 metres) long, laid out where The Mall now lies.

Pall-mall seems to have been a cross between croquet and golf, using a mallet and a boxwood ball a foot (30 cms) in diameter. The players drove the ball along the course by taking immense swings at it with the mallet. To end the game they then had to shoot the ball through a suspended hoop at one end. The person who required the fewest shots won. The name literally means “ball and mallet” and comes via the obsolete French pallemaille from Italian pallamaglio (palla, a ball + maglio, a mallet).

Some writers have sought a connection between pall-mall and pell-mell, the latter meaning something that happens in a confused, rushed, or disorderly manner, in part because of Pepys’s spelling and in part because of the supposed nature of the game. But this has a quite different source: French pêle-mêle, ultimately a reduplication from mesler, to mix.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 18 Dec. 2004

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Last modified: 18 December 2004.