The tymology of the word "huddle" by English with Stephen

Word Stories: Huddle

This is the transcript for episode 20 of the Learning English with Stephen Podcast. Please use the button below to subscribe to this podcast using your favourite podcast app.

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Welcome to Learning English with Stephen, the series of short podcasts designed to help you learn English as quickly and effectively as possible. If you are new to this podcast I should tell you that there are two types of episode. Half of the time, I talk about learning strategies, or what good learners do to learn English.

The other half of the episodes, which includes this one, is about stories behind words. I like to tell my students stories about the words we use. Sometimes, it is a story about the person the word is named after, or what the word originally meant in another language.

Today’s episode is one such story. I am going to tell you a story about the word ‘huddle’, what it means, why it is associated with sport, and what it originally meant a long, long time ago.

All of that, after some music.

Please remember that you can find the transcript to this episode on my site EnglishwithStephen.com. The transcript is a very powerful tool for students who are learning English, so if there is anything in this episode you don’t understand, please go to EnglishwithStephen.com and take a look. On the site, you’ll also find information about how to follow me on social media and how to have classes with me.

Back to the word, huddle.

It is a very common sight nowadays when watching almost any team sport. Before the game starts, or when there is a pause in play, the team gets together in a circle to talk about strategy or to motivate each other. Recently, the England rugby team has been using the huddle in breaks in play to help them to keep up their levels of focus when the game starts again.

The huddle is very common in American football. The quarterback is like the general on the team. He has to communicate to the other players what they are going to do in the next play. It is vital that everyone understands what they have to do, because just one wrong move can end in disaster for the team.

As you might expect from this explanation, the huddle was invented by an American football team, but for slightly surprising reasons.

In 1894, Paul Hubbard was playing quarterback for the American football team at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Gallaudet University is interesting because it was the first university specifically for deaf or hard of hearing people. As the quarterback, Paul Hubbard was the leader on the field. He had to decide who was going to run where and he had to throw the ball to the rest of his team.

Hubbard used to communicate his plans to the players on the field by using sign language with his hands. He realised that sometimes a member of the opposition could read his signs and so would know what they were going to do. In order to stop the opposition reading his signs, he asked his teammates to stand in a circle so nobody else could see what he was signing. And this was the birth of the huddle.

The word ‘huddle’ is actually much older than American football. According to the wonderful website etymonline.com, It is first seen in English in the 1570s and meant something like crowding together, for example putting a lot of chickens into a small place would mean they were huddled together. The English version of the word probably comes from German hudern. (My apologies to my friend Peter and any other German listeners for my terrible German!).

Nowadays, ‘huddle’ can still have this meaning of lots of people coming together in a small space, for example, if it was raining and I was with a few friends we might be huddled under a bus stop trying to keep dry.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of ‘huddle’ is from a poem called ‘The New Colossus’ by Emma Lazarus that can be found on the Statue of Liberty in New York;

‘Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…’

The idea here is that poor people from around the world, who were often crowded together in dark and dangerous cities, would be welcomed in the USA where they could find freedom.

Listening to some of the speeches from certain American politicians recently, this quote might no longer be a reasonable description of the USA. If that has changed, though, the sight of huddles on sporting fields around the world only seems to go from strength to strength.

I have some homework for you today. If you have liked this podcast, please subscribe to receive more episodes on your favourite podcast app. If you have really liked this episode, please write a review on your app or on my site. And if you have loved this episode, please tell a friend or share it on your social media.

And remember, you can find links to all of the things I have mentioned in this podcast, as well as the transcript, on my site Englishwithstephen.com

So long, and have a good one!

Pictured from above, a young sports team are in a huddle on a grass pitch. Text: Word Stories: Huddle. The origin of the word 'huddle' by English with Stephen
Huddle up!

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