Typically, when most of us think of today’s word dribbling, we think of its obvious usage – in basketball. When it comes to football, the word is rarely even used anymore. Perhaps surprisingly, the word can also be applied to sports with a stick, like field or ice hockey, or even – believe it or not – the swimming strokes in water polo. Considering that it’s a vital part of one of the world’s most popular sports, it’s time that we take a look at what it actually means to dribble.
Naturally, in a technical sporting sense, dribbling can be defined as moving an object in a specific direction while avoiding defenders’ attempts to intercept or stop movement, but the word has a much more damp and flowing origin. Initially, a variant of the word drip, our word comes from the Old English drypan/dryppan and originated as the Proto-Germanic drupjanan, all of which can be taken to mean ‘to fall in drops’. Indicative of its origin and figuratively relating to a liquid falling (or trickling) in drops, the first known mention of our word can be found in a pamphlet from 1589 during the The Marprelate Controversy against the Anglican Church by a puritan using the pseudonym “Martin Marprelate”, who writes: “I think it well if I can dribble out a letter in sheet paper now and then.”
From such a beginning, it can be difficult to see how a word defined in this manner can possibly be associated with the actions it represents in basketball or football. Yet, looking at a figurative usage of the term to represent something that is ‘inconsiderable or made up of petty or trifling items’, as can be seen in Philemon Holland’s 1600 translation of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita Libri (which he titled The Roman History written by T. Livius of Padua), where he translates, “There passed some dribbling skirmishes [L. levia proelia] between the..Carthaginians, and..the Romans.” At face value, this may not mean much; however, when looking at it logically, it makes sense: after all, what is a dribble in sports but a series of small, singularly unimportant actions in order to move an object?
Confirming this inference, the first specifically sporting use of the term can be found in the October issue of an 1863 periodical called The Sporting Gazette, where A. G. Guillemard, stating that: “The Eton game, when the ‘long-behind’ is dribbling the ball before his feet slowly forward.”, employs the term to mean ‘to keep moving along the ground in front of and close to one by a rapid succession of short pushes’.
Adding to this inferred usage a decade later, the term was also used in the 1873 book Billiards by Joseph Bennett and “Cavendish” who manipulate the term to mean ‘giving a ball a slight push’, writing: “To keep the white by the spot, and by the same stroke to dribble the red over the corner.”
Now that its status in the world of sport was being cemented, our term would bounce around for a couple more decades (MASSIVE pun intended) until it would be applied for the first time in the April 15, 1893 edition of The (Logansport, Indiana) Daily Journal to indicate ‘bouncing a basketball continuously with the hand while moving around the court’, printing that: “The ball may be dribbled along the ground with the hand.”
Who could’ve guessed that falling drops or a trickling stream would ever come so far? Perhaps it simply demonstrates that our understanding of words is a give-and-take between original meaning and applied meaning.