How shopping centres started life as a croquet mallet* (*ish)

18 Nov
Pall mall - Project Gutenberg eText 14315 - ht...

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We’re all familiar enough with the concept of a ‘shopping mall’ and I’m sure there are one or two people who have swung a croquet or polo mallet in their time – but most of us are probably unaware that the two share a common origin

I had a little time to kill recently before a job interview (I didn’t get the job), so was browsing in a nearby bookshop.  They had a specialist ‘London’ section and on flicking through one of the books, I noticed a section on Pall Mall, one of London’s most prestigious addresses.

For those not familiar with Pall Mall, it’s a posh street in central London that has traditionally housed many of the most exclusive gentlemen’s clubs.  Or for those of us plebs, it’s one of the pink streets on the Monopoly board, yours for a mere £140.

The street Pall Mall was effectively a sporting arena in the 17th century; it was the alley where people played the popular game of pall mall or paille-maille, which seems to be a hybrid between croquet and golf.  The terms ‘pall’ and ‘mall’ come from the Italian ‘palla’ (ball) and ‘maglio’ (mallet).

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the game of pall mall as thus: “players use a mallet to drive a boxwood ball through an iron ring suspended at the end of a long alley in as few strokes as possible, or within a given number of strokes.”

Even Samuel Pepys mentions in his diary in 1663 that, on walking through St James’s Park, he had been “discoursing with the keeper of the Pell Mell who was sweeping of itwho told me of what the earth is mixed that doth floor the Mall, and that over all there is Cockle-shells powdered.” And this is a comparatively late reference – the first mentions of pall mall occur about 100 years earlier.

This game of pall mall also gave its name to another nearby London location – the Mall in St James’s Park.  When playing pall mall fell out of fashion, the Mall prospered in the 17th and 18th centuries as a fashionable tree-lined path for promenading – the art of walking about so one could see and be seen.

‘Mall’ then became a generic term for any kind of covered walkway, and in the middle of the 20th century, we start to see this term applied in the US to a group of shops clustered within the same building.  The OED records the first usage of ‘mall’ to refer to a shopping centre in 1959 – nearly four hundred years after the first mention in English of the game of ‘pall mall’.  It’s an extraordinary journey for one little word!

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