Paddle ball

Making a "racket" over "racquet"

Many people are hoping to get new tennis “rackets” this holiday season. But many people who play “racquetball” are hoping for new “racquets.” (People who play platform tennis use “paddles,” so ignore them.)

Whether to use “racket” or “racquet” is mostly a matter of style, and “racket” has a clear lead. The Associated Press and New York Times both prefer “racket,” while ESPN’s site seems to prefer “racquet.”

To make it more difficult, the subjects of coverage are all over the map. It’s not an earthshaking decision, but it can take some thought to decide which spelling to use.

The United States Tennis Association apparently swings both ways. A search for “racquet” on its site yields more than 10,000 hits; “racket” yields only about 2,800. But the official USTA rules use “racket,” as did the International Tennis Federation’s rules for the 2012 Olympics.

Manufacturers can’t agree, either. Head and Prince make “racquets.” Babolat invites you to “Find Your Racquet,” but its tennis page lists only “rackets.” You can use Wilson’s “racket selector” to find that a “Four BLX racket” works best for you, but then have to search for a Wilson Four BLX “racquet” from the Sports Authority or Dick’s Sporting Goods. Like many sporting goods stores, they seem to prefer “racquet,” though an occasional “racket” sneaks in.

Clubs tend to use “Racquet” in their names, perhaps so they don’t sound like the “social clubs” used by organized crime, places where “the rackets” are planned.

A “racket” can also be a loud noise, or commotion.

How does this spelling differentiation happen? No one is sure. What is sure is that both words arise from the French “raquette,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “an instrument formed like a paddle apparently used in scraping the bottom of a ship.”

The OED traces the sports paddle “racket” to the mid-16th century, when “raquet,” “rackette,” and “raket” also appeared. The OED, though, does not list “racquet” separately; all uses are embedded in definitions of “racket.” American dictionaries tend to list “racquet” as a “variant spelling” of “racket,” a clear indication of preference.

You might think the easy one to deal with is “racquetball.” Because it’s in its name, USARacquetball consistently uses “racquet” for both the game and the implement, and The New York Times style guide says “the game is racquetball.” But Britain has a game called “racketball,” based on the American “racquetball,” and that sport, as well as “squash,” are played with “rackets” there. Perhaps they’re on to something.

If you follow AP or Times style, you need to decide which is worse: violating style or inflicting “racquetball rackets” on your audience. You might decide to use whatever the subject uses, or you may decide that “racquet” looks more sophisticated.

But beware: Garner’s Modern American Usage says “racquet” is used “seemingly because the ‘fancy’ spelling looks more high-toned.” That may also explain why, Garner’s says, in squash, “racquet has somehow become the predominant spelling.” In the US, at least.

Note that no one ever spells that last game “skash.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.