Believe it or not, this is a controversial question. No one disagrees that the moniker was the brainchild of Joan Pritchard, the wife of one of the game’s founders. What pickleball enthusiasts argue over is why Joan chose this name.
Some say “pickleball” was an ode to the Pritchards’ dog Pickles. Others claim Joan was inspired by the “pickle boat” in the sport of crew. Fortunately, the journalists at Pickleball Magazine have settled the matter.
According to their January 2021 article How Pickleball Really Got its Name!, they determined that Pickles wasn’t born until 1968. Since pickleball was invented in 1965, the dog couldn’t have been the inspiration.
It was, in fact, the pickle boat in crew that reminded Joan of the game her husband and his friends had just invented. Joan Pritchard was a huge crew fan. She attended Marietta College in Ohio, and at the time the school had one of the best crew teams in the US.
She also grew up nearby and, during her childhood, the whole town would gather to cheer the team on during their races. Joan was a loyal fan. Even after moving to Washington, she’d attend the University of Washington’s regattas whenever the Marietta team competed.
What do the pickle boat and pickleball have in common?
Pickleball is a mish-mash of several sports – namely, badminton, tennis and ping pong. Looking for a way for his bored 13 year-old son to pass the time, Joel Pritchard threw together a game using old ping pong paddles, a wiffle ball, and the badminton court in the Pritchards’ backyard. So it’s sort of a “motley crew” of racket-driven games.
(But don’t let me confuse you. That’s an entirely different sort of “crew” than the one we’re talking about here.) Crew is the sport of competitive rowing – the oldest Olympic sport, in fact.
It is called “crew” rather than “rowing” because it is a team, rather than an individual, sport. In crew, long, slender boats manned by teams of rowers, perfectly in sync, race against each other in what is known as a regatta. Crew is an extremely demanding sport, both physically and mentally.
Strong arms and backs, and even particular builds, give rowers a distinct advantage. But not everyone who wants to row crew is gifted with all these traits. To give young rowers a chance to compete, without spoiling the team’s chances of winning their regattas, coaches put the “less gifted” team members together in one boat.
The boat was called – you guessed it – a pickle boat.
Crew coaches probably got the term “pickle boat” from English yacht racing. In that sport, pickle boat is slang for the last boat to finish. This use of the term started when some yachter or spectator said, of the losing boat, “They must have stopped to do some fishing and even pickle the fish.”
In fact, the term really originated with fishing fleets. This happened when a clever fisherman joked that the crew of the last boat in the flotilla must have stopped along the way to pickle the fish it had caught. Pickling, soaking fish in brine in order to preserve it, was a notoriously time-consuming process.
The first boats were probably built in the Stone Age. And people worldwide have been preserving fish by pickling it since at least Medieval times. So the term “pickle boat” could be extremely old.
Also, somewhere along the way, “just off the pickle boat” seeped into popular culture. In the sixties, a singer named Ella Jenkins had a hit with a song called “Charlie Just Off the Pickle Boat.” And some polite folks started referring to people they considered disheveled or otherwise kind of pathetic as “off the pickle boat.”
To be brutally honest, at a certain point, it was a way of calling someone kind of a loser. So Joan may have been referring to the pickle boat in crew when she christened the new game “Pickle Ball” (which eventually became “pickleball”). Or she may have meant something else. Most likely, whatever she meant, it was all in good fun.
Because, from the day the new game was invented, it was clear her whole family and their friends loved it!