Last week, the world lost Muhammad Ali. In and outside the ring, he lived up to his larger-than-life nickname: The Greatest. As we remember his life and legacy, let’s have a few rounds with the etymology of the sport he championed: boxing.
The Oxford English Dictionary first records boxing – “the action of fighting with the fists” – surprisingly late for a sport well-documented in antiquity. The dictionary cites an essay in Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s Spectator in 1711 which urges regular physical exercise alongside mental exertion. To that end, the writer extols a form of classical, calisthenic shadow-boxing, or sciamachy, involving weighted sticks: “This opens the chest, exercises the limbs, and gives a man all the pleasures of boxing, without the blows.”
Boxing was popular – and deadly – in ancient Rome, but the sport died out after the fall of the empire. Some look to the rise of Christianity, others sword-based combat, as possible explanations. A bout isn’t recorded in England until 1681 when a lord matched up his butler and his butcher, apparently, in a bare-knuckle fight. (The butcher is said to have won.) English Prizefighter James Figg helped to popularize the sport in the early 1700s, his pupil Jack Broughton soon after helped to codify it.
Now, The Spectator’s “blows” is the operative word if we referee boxing’s origins. Boxing, as you can imagine, takes it corner from box, a verb first meaning “to strike” or “beat” by the early 16th century (and since narrowed to its sporting sense). This box is from an earlier noun, a “buffet,” “cuff,” or “blow,” found as early as 1300 and now surviving largely in a box on the ears.
Scholars see in English’s box some tempting etymological contenders: the Middle Dutch boke, Middle German buc, and Danish bask all mean a “blow.” But these comparisons are no knockouts. Most scholars conclude box is probably a native English word that imitates the sound of a punch. Walter Skeat sees box as a variant of pash, another echoic term for a combat “blow.”
Some philologists suggest box may be a playful extension of Christmas box, a container that once collected tips for servants and apprentices. In one early iteration of the custom, this box was an earthenware vessel broken open around the holiday, its contents then shared among the workers. (We can imagine a young employee asking a workmate, “Want a present?” But his fellow is only rewarded with a box on the arm. “There’s no prize if you don’t smash open the box!”) On the first weekday after Christmas, various workers received a Christmas box on this so-called Boxing Day.
The receptacle box takes its name from the box tree, as early containers were fashioned from its wood. The name of the dog breed, originating in Germany, nods to the historically pugnacious temperament of a boxer, whose shorts are remembered in the loose-fitting underwear, boxer shorts. In 1900, a Chinese secret society attempted an uprising against foreigners. English roughly, if not erroneously, rendered the group’s Chinese name as “the Righteous Harmony Fists,” or boxers, hence the Boxer Rebellion.
If boxing so originates as English onomatopoeia, it’s an apt etymology for Muhammad Ali: He was a true original, who we will remember for winning with his words as much as with his fists.