This week’s Radiolab podcast was about a strange Olympic badminton match in which both teams were trying to lose instead of trying to win. It was a great story, but at the beginning, Mike Pesca made a big deal about how the game is badminton, not badmitten as many people say, as though you’re scolding a cat. Bad Mitten!
I am certainly one of those people who’ve been saying it wrong my whole life, so I was happy to learn the right way, but if you know me, by now you know that I also wanted to know WHY it has such an odd name, and they didn’t get to that part in Radiolab, so we’re going to get to it today. Because whether it’s badminton or badmitten, neither one has an obvious origin when I start thinking about it.
It turns out badminton is named after a place: Badminton House, the estate where the game was first played in England. Badminton House is the private home of the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort and lies in the Gloucestershire countryside. There are a few different stories about how the game came to be played at the house. A book about great homes in England and the website for Badminton House claim that the game was invented by children in the house in 1863 and the Oxford English Dictionary has a story they call unsubstantiated that says the elastic shuttlecock was substituted for a ball so the children wouldn’t damage pictures hung in the house. However, the website for the United States badminton team and a BBC article about the sport note that versions of the game had been played for hundreds of years in Europe, India, and China, and that it was brought to Badminton House by British officers who had played the game in India, where they called it poona. (The Oxford English Dictionary also calls this origin story unsubstantiated. So who knows?)
Regardless of the origin though, the game remains named for the estate. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the name Badminton itself comes from an Old English word that means “the estate of (a man called) Baduhelm.” I tried to find out what Baduhelm means, and the furthest I could get was to find that helm (at least when it was a name by itself) usually meant “herdsman.”