I'm embarrassed by how much television I've been watching lately. On further reflection, perhaps that's not true--maybe I'm just embarrassed by how much television I've found myself admitting to watching. But it does raise lots of bloggable issues, so here I go again with the admitting.

Better Half came home tonight to find me watching The Big Bang Theory with a sleeping baby on my lap. (My excuse: I was stuck--I couldn't very well disturb the baby, who hates to nap and so must be tricked into doing it on my lap. So, nothing to do but power up the remote control.) In this episode, the boys are preparing for the "Physics Bowl". When they started practi{c/s}ing for the Bowl with physics quiz questions, BH said, "Oh, that's what they're doing! I couldn't figure out why physicists would get so excited about bowling!"

The AmE bowl in Physics Bowl is the same as the more general College Bowl--a contest between (usually) students in which they answer (usually) academic questions. The UK equivalent to the College Bowl is University Challenge, a television program(me) in which students from different universities (or colleges within the Oxbridge/London universities) compete on television. (Perhaps some Americans will have seen this in the book/film Starter for Ten--if it was released over there...) University Challenge was based on the College Bowl, but it has overtaken its ancestor in terms of popularity. The College Bowl was televised in the US from the 1950s until 1970, but University Challenge is a television institution that's still very popular today. My own bowl experience was to be in the History Bowl when I was in the 8th grade. In that case, it was a county-wide competition for which I had to learn much more than I ever wanted to know about the Erie Canal. (I stayed home on the day of the final, insisting that I was [AmE-preferred] sick/[BrE-preferred] ill, but I think my mother was right in insisting that it was just butterflies. Oh, the regret.)

I'm fairly certain that the name of these kinds of contests (which hasn't made it into the OED or American Heritage) is derived from the use of bowl to refer to certain post-season football (=BrE American football) games, such as the Rose Bowl, which are played between (AmE) college (= BrE university) teams. (Plus the Super Bowl, which is played between professional teams.) They are so-called because of the bowl shape of the stadiums (or stadia, if you prefer--the spellchecker doesn't) in which they were first played.

The kind of bowl(ing) that Better Half was imagining is generally called bowling in AmE, but ten-pin bowling in BrE. (In AmE bowling can also refer to variants like candlepin bowling. You can look these things up if you'd like to know the difference! The social class implications of bowling in America are noted in the comments of a recent post.) This distinguishes it from the game more traditionally played in England, (lawn) bowls, which is closely related to the continental games boules/pétanque and bocce (which is the more familiar game in America, thanks to Italian immigrants). Another kind of bowling found in the UK (more than the US), particularly in the Southwest, is skittles, the game from which modern indoor bowling is derived. This provides me with an excuse to post one of my photos of the Children's Parade in the Brighton Festival. This year the theme was favo(u)rite games, and one school chose skittles. (It's not the best photo I took, but I've suddenly had qualms about posting a photo of other people's children.) In the US, I imagine most people would associate skittles with a (AmE) candy/(BrE) sweet.

(...which compels an anecdote. I was at a party in Waco, Texas once and met a man who told me he was in Research and Development at M&M/Mars, one of the bigger employers in town. I asked what he'd developed. His wife proudly put her arm in his and beamed, "He invented Skittles!" As you can see, one meets Very Important People in Waco. And I should join Anecdoters Anonymous.)

The verb to bowl is used to describe what one does with the projectile in all of these games, but is also used to describe how the ball is delivered (or not) to the bat in cricket--and hence the person who does that delivering is the bowler. The closest thing in popular American sports is the pitcher, who pitches a baseball.

Going further afield, another bowl that differs is found in the (AmE) bathroom/(BrE informal) loo. While AmE speakers clean the toilet bowl, BrE speakers stick their brushes into the toilet's pan. I'm not absolutely sure that BrE speakers don't also use bowl in this sense (do you?), but it jars whenever I hear people speak about the toilet pan, as it makes me imagine something very shallow.

Those are the bowl differences I've noticed myself, although the OED also gives a special Scottish English sense: a marble. Their only example is from 1826, so you Scots will have to tell us whether it's current!


  1. I've heard both pan and bowl used for the toilet. I'd use bowl myself. I hear pan mostly as part of the expression: 'going down the pan' as in something going very badly.

    My Nan and Granddad were bowlers until old age prevented them from playing anymore. They have quite a few trophies, I wouldn't say it was like boule, except that the aim is to get your ball nearest the jack. Crown green bowling or flat green bowling as I would call it the balls are rolled along the green not thrown like boule.

    I love your blog, as we'd say it's gradely.

  2. I (BrE) would usually say toilet bowl rather than pan - I'd understand the latter, but I would be surprised to hear it used much. To be honest, if you'd asked me before reading this article, I might have assumed that it was an American usage (which I think is a phenomenon you've discussed before).

  3. Surely "rose bowl" derives not from the stadium, but from the trophy (a rose bowl being an alternative to a cup). Using the term as a name for the competition is thus parallel to "World Cup", "F.A. Cup", etc.

    (P.S. "Practising" in British English as well as U.S., as it's a verbal form.)

  4. Another BE speaker who says "toilet bowl" and "toilet pan" is not very common and possibly American usage.

  5. "Bowl" comes from the stadium? Well, I'll be bumswizzled.

    I always assumed that the various "bowls" were named after the trophy being competed for, analagous to the FA Cup, or the Northumberland Plate.

    I suppose the idea was supported by the fact that, to me, a rose bowl is a type of vase, usually crystal or silver, that is sometimes used as a trophy.

    Fancy that.

  6. Yes, indeedee, it's the stadium. Another famous stadium (though not for (American) football) is the Hollywood bowl. The OED says:

    d. A football stadium (no longer necessarily bowl-shaped). Freq. in the names of particular stadia. Cf. ROSE BOWL 2, Super-Bowl s.v. SUPER- 6c. U.S.


    bowl, n.1

    Add: [3.] e. A sporting occasion, held in such a stadium, at which a football game is the main (orig. the only) event; later extended to include similar events held elsewhere. Also spec. = bowl game, sense *7 below. U.S.

    [7.] bowl game Amer. Football, an established post-season game, spec. one played at any of a number of named stadiums.

  7. (that should've been Hollywood Bowl)

  8. Welsh Jacobite: practise is only BrE. In AmE both the verb and noun are practice.

  9. The only time I've ever seen toilet pan is in a few Asian airports where a particular stall might be marked on the door "squatting pan" to distinguish it from a Western style toilet.

    Re: bowling, I assume that most British people would have no idea what duckpins are.

  10. I always say bowl, but that may be the influence from my family.

  11. Aye (er, yes) I can confirm that bowls is also a term for marbles, though it's pronounced bools (a bit like 'fools' only a slightly "fatter" sound? I'm afraid I don't have the terminology).

  12. How odd. I was sure I had sent a post along the same lines as Dougal's. Apparently it got lost in the ether between here and the blog.

  13. Some histories of the Rose Bowl say it took its name from the Yale Bowl which, if true, begs the question way was it the Yale "Bowl".

  14. The Yale Bowl was completed in 1914 and was the first "bowl"-shaped stadium. The Rose Bowl (game) was from 1902 to 1922 played in Tournament Park and called the Tournament East-West football game. The Rose Bowl (stadium) was completed for the 1923 game. The "Rose" part comes from the Tournament of Roses Parade held on New Year's Day in Pasadena since 1890.

    Wikipedia makes me feel clever.

  15. How amusing. As I recall my one, short visit to the US, the toilets there were a lot shallower (and used an inordinately large amount of water to rather ill effect compared to even British toilets ...) than any other I recall seeing, so 'pan' would fit them a lot better than their British/European counterparts.

  16. @fauxklore: yes, neither duckpin bowling, or candlepin bowling, or any other of the N. American variants are known in Britain, as far as I know. There are however many variants of skittles in different regions.

    'Bowl' seems to me to be more common than 'pan' in referring to a toilet, and the instructions on toilet cleaning products seem to refer to the 'bowl' (and rim) mainly. I've seem toilets in Germany which have much shallower 'pans', though.

  17. Yes those German toilets can be quite alarming when you first come across them, although these days they are less common then previously.

    In my ScE upbringing I also knew both pan and bowl. My feeling (not necessarily accurate of course) is that "pan" was formerly more common but that "bowl" has for quite a long time now been steadily gaining the upper hand. To me at least that suggests that "pan" is seen as older and lower class.

  18. Dougal: So it's pronounced like Boules? That's the name I give to the game the Southern French call Pétanque - and thinking about it, the rules of marbles and pétanque are very similar.

  19. I'm American. The only link I can think of between toilet bowl and toilet's pan, is bedpan.

  20. Oh, and Linnet's Nest, Americans sometimes use the expressions "going down the tubes" or "circling the drain" when something is going very badly.

  21. I think Cameron's right--pan is probably more common among the older working class--on reflection of where I've heard it...

  22. Toilet pans: never heard the term, but it's true that in Germany, and sometimes in France, you find what appear to be normal toilets, but rather than having a deep bowl of water, there is a shallow upper level with almost no water in it. When you flush, the water sweeps away the contents of this "pan" into the lower level then down the drain.

  23. They're for medical purposes, Marc! They make it easy to inspect the contents before flushing so you can make sure you haven't got anything nasty hiding in there. Bizarre but true. Not at all necessary any more with modern diet and medicine and so on, and they are steadily losing out to the type more common elsewhere.

    The main problem I've found with them is that if it's a HEAVY use, then when you start wiping... no, never mind, I'm not going there.

  24. I had to look back, which in the way I'm paginating as I catch up with the blog means going forward to a post I haven't yet read (yes, I know, but it makes sense to me) to find out the social status of (ten-pin) bowling in the US. I suppose I should have guessed since these days I associate the game with Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski.

    I have had some experience of ten-pin bowling but haven't enjoyed it much. For one thing bowling alleys in the UK, which I assume are based on the US model, have that ambience of seeming to batter all the senses into parting with one's money in exchange for overpriced fizzy drinks and hamburgers. For another I suffered from a strange inability to let go of the ball and at least once found myself sliding ignominiously along the lane on my (BrE) bum/(AmE) fanny.

    Since I moved back to my birthplace six years ago I have taken to playing bowls, however. Up in these parts we play the grittier, more robust form called crown green bowls rather than the more refined rink or lane bowls you would encounter in Brighton. So there's probably not the same social contrast with US (ten-pin) bowling although we women are still expected to be referred to as 'ladies'. There's also a vague sense (more in some locations than others) that women are permitted to use the green under sufferance. But at least we aren't expected to wear white skirts and panama hats.

  25. Lynne, was the man who invented Skittles, whom you met in Waco, Texas, British?

    Wikipedia (which of course is never wrong) cites a source that says Skittles "were first introduced in the United States in 1974, made by a company in England."

    Other pages on the Internet, none of which rise to the level of completely credible sources, say things similar to this one, which says, "Skittles was invented by Rick Walden, an employee of Mars Limited, the British branch of Mars, Incorporated, based in Slough, England, in 1973."

  26. He might have been. I am notoriously bad at noticing such things. His wife did most of the talking!

  27. BrE, Scot, Mid 60s. I grew up referring to the “lavvy pan”, but I am now more likely to talk about the “toilet bowl”. I attribute this to over-exposure to tv advertising of cleaning products. Or is this just the Recency Effect?


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)