I've just read about the original Magnavox Odyssey console. Interesting story. But what I'm wondering about are the game controllers, and in particular the knob labeled as "English". This Lifewire page describes it thusly:

At the top sat a reset button with the control knobs placed on the sides, and an English Control (EC) node at the end of the right knob. The knobs controlled the vertical and horizontal movement of the “paddle”, while the EC adjusted the “ball.” To place the ball in the center of the screen, you turned the EC to the raised mark indicator.

But why call it "English"? What does a language (or a nationality) have to do with centering a ball? And, especially, why label it that way to the user? Is it something that made sense to the general public in 1972?

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    BW, I have a very hard time not hitting the close button, as this question is about gaming and UI in general, but in no way related to computing. The Odyssey is not even digital but a pure analogue device. Not saying analogue can't be computing, but it's a far stretch from there to questions about an analogue consoles UI.
    – Raffzahn
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 13:53
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    Ah, perhaps it doesn't belong here after all. On the digital / analog divide : The description in Wikipedia says "Internally, the Odyssey architecture is composed of digital computing parts. The circuitry is implemented in diode–transistor logic using discrete transistors and diodes." I took this to mean it's still digital, based on AND/OR/NOT etc, but the "program" is hard-wired. My understanding of analog computers was that they used the electronic characteristics of pluggable components (resistors, condensers, etc.) to compute curves. I'm no expert, though.
    – Nimloth
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 14:01
  • It's always hard to draw a line - after all, even digital is inherently analogue :)) But I guess we are on the safe side to say it's not computing in the sense of a programmed CPU/microcontroller. Also, I did vote by now. As much as I love the question (serious, I upvoted as well, as it's right in the grey goo where popular computing grew out :)), we need to be fair here. Sorry.
    – Raffzahn
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 14:16
  • @Raffzahn: I think it's more of a video-game question than a computing question, but it's definitely "retro". The ball motion control on the Odyssey, unlike Pong, is analog rather than digital, but I'd regard it as an analog computer with two separate integrating circuits--one used for the vertical position and one used for the horizontal.
    – supercat
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 16:52
  • @Raffzahn: BTW, I wonder what sorts of analog computing tasks the Odyssey could be configured to perform using cartridges that included precision pots, switches, and jumpers, but no other circuits? I think the "basketball" game used a double integrator for horizontal position, suggesting that while accuracy probably wouldn't be great, it might be able to approximate an analog square root.
    – supercat
    Commented Sep 17, 2021 at 15:43

3 Answers 3


"English" is a billiards term for spin.

I assume that adjusting the ball position in the game gave some control over the trajectory of the ball, reminiscent of spin.

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    English (n. 2.): "spin imparted to a ball" (as in billiards), 1860, from French anglé "angled" (see angle (n.)), which is similar to Anglais "English." --- So, while both the spin term and the country name derive from French word for angle, they are separate borrowings. (etymonline has it capitalized, I accept that this is not usual.) Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 20:44
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    @Mazura 'Control' is also capitalized so it should be in that sentence.
    – David
    Commented Sep 17, 2021 at 4:14
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    @RossPresser So it's the same explanation as the "English horn", which derives from its French name being "Cor anglais", which rightly should probably be spelled "Cor anglé" and translated to "Angled horn". It has nothing to do with England. Commented Sep 17, 2021 at 16:36
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    @RossPresser French "anglé" has NO relation whatsoever to England (the country). England is derived from Angleland (Land of the Angle) The Angles were originally a Germanic tribe from Northern Germany/Denmark. A large part of that tribe, together with a lot of Saxons (another tribe from Germany), migrated to the South-Eastern parts of Britain in the very early Middle-Ages. The term Anglo in Anglo-Saxon is also derived from that. The French influence only came 4 centuries later (1066 AD, battle of Hastings) when the Normans conquered England. England was already an established name by then.
    – Tonny
    Commented Sep 19, 2021 at 10:57

Kind of an authoritative support for Dave's answer (*1) as this was a question I asked Mr. Baer on a visit in 2008. I haven't heard that term before either.

But why call it "English"?

As Dave said, it's a term taken from billiard and about giving it a 'spin'. The intention was to make the game more about skills. He assumed that a straight deflection would be way too boring.

In the center of the left knob is yet another knob which controls the "ENGLISH" of the Ball Spot. I think "ENGLISH" refers to something in the real-world game of billiards that governs how a ball's trajectory curves due to its spin. This "ENGLISH" control allows a player to control the trajectory of the Ball Spot after deflecting it with the Player Spot. The Odyssey Manual always capitalizes the word "ENGLISH" so forgive me if you think I'm shouting.

from an Gamasutra feature (*2)

Regarding the capitalization, the manual does mark all UI elements that way - but, unlike the article mentions, not always. Regarding the use of English the manual states:

English. The English control affects only the ball. When the ball is travelling from left to right, only the Player 1 English control will affect the ball. When the ball is travelling from right to left, only the Player 2 English control will alfect the Ball. The English control will cause the Ball to move upward or downward, depending upon the rotation ol the control knob. The further the knob is turned, the more the Ball will deflect. For your ease in determining the approximate centering of this English control, a "raised" marking is provided on the knob. This marking should be in the upright center position of the knob when you return the Ball to the screen

From the manual p.7

What does a language (or a nationality) have to do with centering a ball ?

It's not just centering, it as well defines how the game starts and how the ball is deflected. For the term itself, no idea, but then again, many things got wierd names that only make sense within a certain setting.

Jim Nelson found some quite helpful answers about the usage of this meaning of 'English' on the English Language & Usage SE site:

'Why is putting some spin on a ball described in some circles as giving it some "English"?'

And, especially, why label it that way to the user ? Is it something that made sense to the general public in 1972 ?

For sure more than any newly invented term would have. Keep in mind, back then it was still common to play real games with real people in real pubs. It's always better to take an even marginally known term then to invent something. Just think, noone ever pressed a button on screen - at least not before touch screens became a thing. Still was named that way :)

*1 - Please mark his answer.

*2 - Great article about Pong history with many details, worth reading.

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    AFAIK, "English" in this sense is an American word, not an English word.
    – dave
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 12:10
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    It made sense to the American general public, it's a US term.
    – Alan B
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 15:42
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    Not really a question for this forum, but: what's the derivation? Was facility with spin particularly associated with English billiards and snooker players? (Which reminds me: a friend of mine in school wrote a billiards game played on an IBM 7094 by mailed-in punch cards. You'd get the printout showing the position, add one more card with your next shot, and mail the deck back again. Naturally, since this was high-school Applied Maths and Physics, starting the universe over again was perfectly repeatable. Kids today and their "video games", bah!)
    – dave
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 19:40
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    @another-dave In my school, it was Monopoly. Not mailed-in (the teacher took the cards to Imperial College each evening) but still 24-hours per move (and the cards were hand-punched!)
    – TripeHound
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 20:21
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    English Stack Exchange has a discussion on the matter: english.stackexchange.com/questions/38397/…
    – Jim Nelson
    Commented Sep 17, 2021 at 0:01

In the U.S., 'English' is a term used in billiards and pool for side spin on the cue ball.

In Britain, and Europe at least, 'side' or 'side spin' is the term used in snooker, pool and billiards.

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