Why It’s Called “Sport” Hunting

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This is a photo of a sport. He happens to be Teddy Roosevelt. Modern conservation hunters appreciate him because without him and other farsighted conservationists of his time, we would not have the conservation system that makes wildlife abundant and accessible today. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)
Contributing Writer

Steve Sorensen

One of the easiest ways to make a joke is to confuse the meaning of words. I recently watched a comedian do that with “sport” hunting. His joke went like this:

“Hunting is the only sport where one side doesn’t know it’s playing the game. The deer has no idea it won the coin toss and elected to receive.”

One reason it’s funny (even to hunters) is the incongruity between the meaning of the word “sport” when used of hunting and when used of a sporting event, in this case football.

I began to wonder, why do we have the phrase “sport hunting”? Would grammar and historical usage provide a clue? The Oxford English Dictionary is the place to look. The OED is a multi-volume historical dictionary and the definitive record of the English language. It’s not the dictionary Scrabble players use to verify that a string of letters is a word. And it’s beyond a simple dictionary of definitions. It shows us original meanings and how words have changed through history. Sometimes it even shows us the first time a word was used.

What does the OED say about the word “sport” in the 1800s, and especially around the time market hunting ended and “sport” hunting began? Can it answer the question, what is sport hunting?

According to the OED, the word “sport” has had many meanings down through the centuries. Most uses of the word in the nineteenth century described a card player, a horse racing enthusiast, a golfer, or someone with another pastime. The noun “sport” referred to the participant in an activity. It is not used as an adjective modifying the activity.

“Sport” was frequently used of men engaging one another in some pastime, but also occasionally used of women. In an OED citation from 1881: “I think she is rather a sport because she is such a good type of a certain class of character.” That’s a clear example of “sport” as a noun. It describes a person in positive terms, but it doesn’t name any activity at all.

So, a sport was a person of good character who participated in a diversion, a pastime, or a recreational activity. A sport is simply one of the guys. At a picnic, the guys (or girls) playing croquet on the lawn were sports. A sport was a participant, and when sport hunting began, “sport hunting” was hunting done by sports, in contrast to market hunting which was done by profiteers for commerce. Hunting was the activity; the sport was the person doing it.

This way of using the word sport is archaic in most contexts today. We seldom call anyone a sport now, but it is preserved in certain phrases such as “a poor sport” and “a good sport” which helps us understand the word. The poor sport is the guy who doesn’t accept the outcome graciously, the good sport is the guy who does. Being a good sport is important. Being a good sport is a social convention which reveals character. It cultivates trust and good relationships.

A “sport” then, was a person willing to have a go, to engage, to be a participant, to put himself forth, to test his strategy in the contest. Sport was not about having fun at someone else’s expense, and sport hunting certainly was not intended to “make sport” of an animal. To the contrary, a good sport respects and honors wildlife. This historical context shows that at the beginning of the modern conservation movement, a person who participated in hunting was a sport. Thus, “sport hunting.”

The phrase “sport hunting” is now archaic, misleading, and misunderstood. That’s why we need a better term for modern hunting. We should call it what it is, “conservation hunting” – the kind of hunting created after subsistence hunting and market hunting became obsolete. It’s the only kind of hunting that can conserve wildlife for future generations. Today’s hunters are much more than “sports.” They are game managers, wildlife advocates, and conservationists.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He is a field contributor to Deer and Deer Hunting magazine, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.