Why Is It Called Pickleball, in Case You Were Wondering

We understand why you might scratch your head when you first hear the name. Are you really hitting pickles around a court? What do pickles have to do with balls? Why is it even a game? So, why is it called pickleball, anyway?

Let’s do a deep dive and get the facts about this popular sport and its silly name.

History of Pickleball

We’ll start with the origin of the game before we discuss why is it called pickleball. Congressman Joel Pritchard from Washington and his friend, Bill Bell invented it in 1965. The resourceful men devised a way to entertain their waiting families with the things that were handy: 

Sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it?

Badminton provided the initial rules of the game with a shorter net than the regular one. Asphalt provided the bounce. Pritchard and Bell then introduced their mutual friend, Barney McCallum to their invention.

No one looked back from that day.

Pickleball took on a life of its own. By 1972, it was an official sport that captured media attention and enthusiasts from all over the country. The USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) formed in 1984, making spreading the word its mission. It has its own board of directors and a team of volunteers anxious to share their love of the sport.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Why is it Called Pickleball, Anyway?

Pickleball has stayed true to its origins as a racquet sport. It has, however, shed the Wiffleball and ping-pong paddles for official gear that players use today. There is nothing even remotely resembling a pickle in the game, barring its name, of course.

Word around the campfire has it that Joan Pritchard, the congressman’s wife, gave the sport its moniker after the others invented it. After all, it didn’t have a name at first.

One popular urban legend says that the family named it after their dog who would fetch the Wiffle balls that were in play. It’s probably the story you’ll see most often. Unfortunately, it’s not true, at least, not entirely.

Joel and Joan Pritchard and their son, Frank, have all debunked the story. Those in the know aren’t really sure how it took on that name. It remains lost in the family lore.

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Of Crew and Pickle

A likely explanation involves Joan Pritchard and her love of rowing. Pickle, in terms of crew, means the last team to win a regatta. Presumably, it has the least skilled oarsmen, a mish-mash of individuals not chosen by the other ones.

Pritchard equated this word to the jumble of gameplay elements of pickleball. The story has some merits. There are three sports represented in the original version with another set of rules. It has its own jargon. It has something of a mystery associated with it. That qualifies in our book.

As an experienced rower, Pritchard likely had an excellent handle on the lingo of the sport. The name makes sense when taken in this context. It also fits when you consider another idiom using this word, in a pickle. That’s where you’d be if you’ve sunk your boat.

Another variation speaks of Pritchard thinking that the ping-pong paddles the players used resembled the ones that the crew members would use on a pickle boat.

Word around the internet states that the fishermen on the said pickle boat would catch herring and pickle them on the way to the shore. However, that doesn’t quite seem right. For one, it takes a few days to make it. More likely is that pickled herring was made on land put in barrels to transport it someplace else.

Nevertheless, it makes for a good story too.

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Is There a Connection Between the Name and the Family Pet?

Barney McCallum, one of the game’s original inventors, said that Pickles the dog was the inspiration for the name. He claimed the pet’s antics during gameplay gave someone the idea.

They say that timing is everything. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Or, as in this case, was it the name or the dog?

Family members confirm that Pickles the cocker spaniel joined the Pritchards well after the game’s creation. The name, therefore, came before the dog. Pickleball, as it turns out, gave the family pet his name, instead.

Why the Name Fits

If you want to set any notions of logic aside, we think there are a lot of great reasons that the game has this name. You have to admit that it sounds funny. And that seems to define what it means.

Sure, there are clubs and leagues, which bring a serious edge to the game. However, its origins rest with finding a way to while away an afternoon. After all, doesn’t it make you want to smile after just saying the name?

Pickleball has found followers in all 50 states. It has made a hit on the international scene with clubs in India and Canada too, with no signs of stopping, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) 2018 Pickleball Participant Report.

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Why the Story of the Dog Persists

Like in many urban legends, sometimes, the more farfetched a story, the stronger it takes hold. To be fair, the inventors of the game went with it, including the Pritchards. It offers just that right bit of craziness to match its strange beginnings. 

Even the USAPA embraced it and gave it a new life to another generation of followers. The organization has since acknowledged the varying accounts, leaving the door open for any variation to take center stage.

We have to admit liking this version better too.

Final Thoughts

Whatever story is true about its whimsical name, pickleball continues to attract followers with over 3.3 million participants in the game. And while you may consider it a casual backyard game, think again. Over 60 percent of enthusiasts over age 55 are core players. Thanks to the efforts of the USAPA and its members, pickleball is here to stay.