shack = 'chase (tennis) balls' (1883)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Wed Aug 31 06:46:27 UTC 2005

The term "shag" = 'to chase down balls' appears in baseball and various
other US sports. MWCD11 has it from 1896, OED2 from 1913. OED2 also lists
the earlier form "shack" (but only with cites from other dictionaries):

shack, v.3
trans. 'To go after, as a ball batted to a distance' (Cent. Dict. 1891);
'to chase and fetch, as a batted ball' (Funk's Stand. Dict. 1895).

For some reason OED2 doesn't link the allied senses of "shack" and "shag"
etymologically. Dickson's Baseball Dictionary provides the likely origin
for the terms under "shag":

The term appears to have begun as "shack," which was a variation on
"shake" (as in, to "shake it"), which became "shag."

The term "shack" was in use at Harvard in the 1880s, specifically
referring to the retrieval of errant tennis balls. Here's an 1889 cite in
a Boston Globe article about Harvard slang (plenty of other good stuff in
the article, though it's not completely legible):

1889 _Boston Globe_ 23 Jun. 24/2 'To shack,' is to chase tennis balls.

The Crimson archive has examples back to 1883 in articles about young
townies (or "muckers") who offered to work as ballboys for a fee. The
ballboys were called "shacks" or "shackers".

Harvard Crimson, May 10, 1883
We would urge upon the Tennis Association the advisability of reforming
the present system of "shacking." The folly of allowing things to continue
as at present is obvious. A swarm of impertinent small boys daily infests
Holmes' field, and besieges any one wishing to play with their importunate
cries as long as he is on the ground.
Harvard Crimson, Jun 7, 1883
But precisely why the ardor of the "shacker" in the pursuit of the wayward
tennis ball should have suffered so sudden a cooling, and his numbers so
sadly diminished, is not easy to see. We are perhaps forced to the
conclusion that a reckless extravagance had characterized the players of
tennis previous to the new rule, and that prices paid to "shackers" had
ruled much higher then at present. Still we can hardly believe that the
average paid "shackers" under the new arrangement is less than before.
That shacking is losing its attractions may be due to the fact that the
element of chance is now divorced from the employment.
Harvard Crimson, May 6, 1884
Not only do little 'shavers,' both white and black, beset anyone who
carries a racquet in his hand from the moment he leaves his door until he
commences to play, but burly youths of fifteen or sixteen seem to find the
business profitable and come shambling into the college yard in hopes of
getting a chance at "shacking." "Shackers" are a necessary evil to the
easy enjoyment of tennis, but it does not seem necessary that they should
be permitted to disturb the quiet of the yard.
Harvard Crimson, Apr 6, 1886
With the beginning of the tennis season, which will probably open with all
its former activity at the close of the recess, must come also the much
talked of "shack." Any measures, which the Tennis Association could adopt,
to rid the college grounds of this nuisance as far as possible, would be
most welcome to the college.
Harvard Crimson, Apr 15, 1886
Some means should be taken at once to do away with the present abominable
"shack" system. It is as much as one's life is worth to try to escape from
the army of small fiends who besiege the expectant tennis-player with
cries of "Shack, mister," or "Say, mister, I'll shack yer fur fi' cents."
Indeed, it it almost impossible to play on crowded Jarvis without "shacks"
to watch the balls. It is admitted by one and all that this system is a
very obnoxious one. It would be quite possible to erect at the back of
some courts stop-nets, which would remove all necessity of hiring
Harvard Crimson, Oct 26, 1886
The money for the back nets could no doubt easily be collected from those
who play there frequently, as they would thus be saved the expense and
inconvenience of "shacking."
Harvard Crimson, May 6, 1887
The newsboys who frequent the outskirts of Memorial Hall are becoming as
great a nuisance as their friends and allies, the shacks. In fact, the
newsboy plague is further reaching than the shack pest, for a shack will
not attack a man who does not carry a racket, whereas the newsboys pursue
everybody they see.
Harvard Crimson, May 10, 1887
Back nets have appeared on Holmes field, and the heart of the tennis
player is glad, while the "shack" wanders disconsolately through the yard.
His reign has been brought to a sudden end by the awakening of the Tennis

--Ben Zimmer

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