Quick: What’s Canada’s national sport?
Actually, that’s a trick question. The obvious answer – hockey (duh) – is Canada’s official winter sport. The answer many of us learned a long time ago – lacrosse – is Canada’s national summer sport. (It was bruited about for years as being the official national sport, in spite of hockey’s much greater popularity, but it turned out that it was not in fact official until 1994, when a member of parliament tried to make hockey the official national sport.)
But seriously, lacrosse? Labatt’s would seem more Canadian – oh, sorry, Molson makes Canadian. Le cross-checking would certainly be more familiar to most Canadians. Even le croissant would be more familiar to most Canadians. For that matter, le skicross is getting popular – I just watched a Canadian take the world title in it. (In fact, Canadians seriously rule in freestyle ski in general. We won 8 out of the 12 golds at this year’s World Freestyle Ski Championships.) But I digress!
Lacrosse is a nice word for the sport, anyway; it may seem a little frilly to English ears and eyes with the la to start and the e on the end, but the sport itself is more thrilly, and you can see a bit of it in the word form if you want: the stick at l whipping the ball (e) across – the ss may even look like a bit of motion blur.
We may note that hockey and lacrosse have some phonetic similarities: both have two syllables with a ricochet off a /k/ in the middle; both have the same vowel sound in the stressed syllable; both have a voiceless fricative on the stressed end – as long as you allow /h/ as a fricative. Lacrosse has a more French accent in that the stress comes at the end – and of course in that it’s a French word.
Actually, it’s two French words, la “the” and crosse “stick”. Calling it lacrosse is like calling it thestick, but that’s its name, even in French now. Not that French Canadians use crosse to mean “stick” anymore. But they didn’t invent the game anyway; it – or an earlier version of it – was played by various First Nations well before any Europeans ever saw it.
The original players didn’t call it lacrosse, of course; some of them called it something that sounded to Anglophone ears like baggattaway, which traces to a verb meaning “hit” or “beat”. The Iroquois called it tewaarathon, “little brother of war”. Who first called it lacrosse? Ah, well, thereby hangs a bit of mythology.
The commonly passed-around story, you see, is that the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf gave it that name because the stick looked like a bishop’s crozier. This story is so widely accepted that you can find it on the website of the Canadian Lacrosse Association (who, however, are off by two centuries on when Brébeuf was around) and in the Wikipedia article for the city of La Crosse, Wisconsin, which was – yes – named after the sport.
But there are stories and then there’s evidence. And, as my friend and colleague Barb Adamski discovered, etymology can involve a heck of a lot of historical dumpster diving. Barb went through all of Brébeuf’s diaries and found… no basis at all for the crozier story. Add to that the fact that jeu de la crosse for “stick game” was a reasonable French phrase of the time – a century earlier François Rabelais had spoken of a game of the same name being played (along with many others) by the thelemites in Gargantua. (My, the things you’ll come across!)
So we can’t necessarily credit Brébeuf for lacrosse, though we still owe him for his carol’s serene loveliness – the Huron Carol, that is. And we can credit Barbara K. Adamski (note the /k/ in the middle again!) for setting the record straight – read her Canadian Encyclopedia article on lacrosse and an article on her research work, “City writer gets the scoop on lacrosse,” both of which I am indebted to for information presented above.