Changing the subject

Cricket and language

Emma John
Suzie Bates inspects her bat, Australia vs New Zealand, 2nd semi-final. Commonwealth Games, Birmingham, August 6, 2022

What's in a name? Suzie Bates inspects her bat  •  Getty Images

The fact you're reading Wisden at all means I can be fairly certain that, whatever your gender, you winced the first time you heard "batter" - at least in reference to cricket, rather than baseball or Yorkshire pudding. I certainly did. Whether my lips formed a moue, I can't remember; I do know that the moment the word registered, some region of my brain automatically rejected it without stopping to ask why.
Reasons followed later: batter was an egregious Americanism, it sounded ugly and unrefined, and it was, just, you know, unnecessary. If forced to boil my reaction down, I'd have said the word simply didn't belong in the game. Which shows how little I know. Thanks to the internet, not to mention Wisden's own archives and its Dictionary of Cricket, it's a mere hop, click and jump to discover that batter was in regular use in cricket from at least 1773 and, until the mid-19th century, was preferred to batsman. The pioneering cricket writer and chronicler of the Georgian game, John Nyren, employed it freely: it was a fundamentally British word, whose country of origin took against it only when it travelled across the Atlantic - just like all that "Americanized" spelling and grammar, which can actually be traced back to the Elizabethan era.
That's the annoying thing about language, isn't it? It changes, whether we like it or not. We use words to describe the world we live in; as that world evolves, so does our vocabulary. Obsolescence, modernisation and coinage are part of the evolution of any sport that sticks around as long as ours. No cricket lover wants the game to lose its charming linguistic quirks, yet it has shed plenty without us noticing or feeling bereft, probably because it's constantly adding more in their place. Goodbye "lobster", hello "flipper"; see ya "draw shot", wassup "ramp".
We recently lost batsman for batter - not just in the conversation of the female players who have been using it for years, but in the Laws of the game, as written by MCC. Some commentators are beginning to drop the "man" from third man; it's reasonable to imagine that nightwatchman and twelfth man will also be rendered gender-neutral in time to come. You can argue that the -man suffix is neutral (much easier if you're a man, and determined to ignore the millennia of patriarchal society that forged it). You can wilfully discount cricket's male-dominated history and the fact that female players were frequently designated batswomen (or even "batsmen", complete with quotation marks). You can say that having a masculine term is harmless. Plenty of women, me included, have no difficulty falling for a game with archaic terminology and a chauvinist history. So where's the problem?
The problem is our inability - perhaps refusal - to see the problem. We don't notice gendered language because we're used to it, and we don't worry about it if we're part of the subset it favours. We feel bound to protect cricket's unique lexicon because it's our heritage, without stopping to wonder whether an inheritance that encodes and assumes male priority and authority is desirable. How easy to mock the idea that batsman is an exclusive term when you're not the one it excludes.
Why do we get defensive when we're encouraged to change our language? Because we're uncomfortable with the idea that we need to, and because such a request calls our attention to societal systems that benefit us at the expense of others, or to the possibility we have hurt others without realising. For decades, our cricketing jargon retained "Chinaman", a word born of racist abuse, without qualm. Wisden and others stopped using it not because it suddenly became taboo, but because thoughtful editors listened to concerns, considered its origins, and recognised that it enshrined rancid racial stereotypes.
No one's arguing that third man is offensive to women, by the way. No one's demanding we cease using it, on pain of excommunication from Lord's. If you're the kind of soul who is happier celebrating a "sixer" when Liam Livingstone tonks one out of the ground, you do you. What changed my own mind about gender-neutral language was this: if I can use a word that makes the game more inclusive for everyone, and offers cricket a chance to redeem just the tiniest bit of its sexist past, why wouldn't I?
Most of us would celebrate the steps cricket has made towards gender equality. The fact that it took two centuries for females to be considered worthy of a place in the game left an imbalance we have only begun to address. We can't be blamed because the generations before us didn't want women around; nor is it our fault that cricket's language, along with pretty much every power structure we inherited, prioritises men. The likelihood is that you, along with most Wisden readers, are doing your best to make the women you know and love feel cricket is their game too.
But it is hard to tackle systemic inequality. It will take years and years. It is, however, easy to say "batter"; it takes no time at all. The word has the same number of syllables as batsman, making it a simple substitute, and mirrors one you already use liberally. Think about it: is batter really a discordant aberration? Or is it a much neater and more harmonious complement to "bowler" than the one we have unthinkingly employed all these years?
As for the horror-cum-outrage of renaming a fielding position, all I can say is that it has happened plenty, and no one, so far, has died. "Point" used to be "bat's end". "Gully" was known as "box". "Third man" is itself a contraction of "third man up", so further shortening is hardly a crime; it may not yet sound right to hear that someone is fielding "at third", but it's linguistically consistent with a player standing at slip, and you might even draw a distinction between "short third" and "deep third".
Tradition is one of cricket's most highly valued characteristics, which is why we guard it so fiercely, and react so emotionally to what we see as needless change. But tradition should never be an excuse for not doing things better. There's a reason we don't subject ourselves to Victorian dentistry, and abandoned the idea that women were men's property. Maybe you reckon you're too old, too set in your ways, to adopt new vocabulary, in which case you clearly haven't googled Covid to doomscroll about the Omicron variant, or WhatsApped your family when you were self-isolating. Maybe you think this entire article is virtue-signalling, if only you could find a phrase for that. Does language wield power, or not? If it doesn't, then using alternative (and less ambiguous) terms for things that already exist can't hurt. I'm guessing that you believe words matter. In which case, why not use them for good?
Emma John is author of Following On, the Wisden Book of the Year in 2016