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Word of the week: whitewash

You are probably familiar with the three main definitions of the word “whitewash”. As listed on the Cambridge Dictionary website they are:

  • “a white liquid that is a mixture of lime or powdered chalk and water, used for making walls or ceilings white”;
  • “an attempt to stop people finding out the true facts about a situation”;
  • “a complete defeat in a game or competition”.

Regarding the first of these definitions, I have used plenty of white paint in my life to make walls and ceilings (and doors, and skirting boards and other woodwork) white, but have never used whitewash. An old piece of advice for men doing National Service, the obligatory military term for UK males that ended in 1960, was: “If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t, whitewash it.” The second of the definitions above was famously used by Richard Nixon around the time of Watergate: “There can be no whitewash at the White House”.

But it is in the third context, “a complete defeat in a game or competition”, that I have been using the word whitewash in recent months, when playing pool with my children.

We were given a miniature pool table a few Christmases ago. It cost about a tenner from somewhere like Robert Dyas. We used it a lot early in 2018. It’s how the children became familiar with using a cue, although the cues included with the table are not much longer than drumsticks. When that miniature table sat in the living-room, untouched, for about six months I finally put it back in the box it came in and put it away.

In August, with the World Snooker Championships taking place a few months later than usual, I returned the table to its previous place, and for the rest of the summer and early autumn we played on it most days. For my son’s birthday last week, when he turned 16, we decided to get him (and, let’s be honest, the rest of us) a larger version of the same. It’s not as wide or as long as the kind of pool tables you see in pubs, but it’s much closer in size to them than to its tiny predecessor. We have been practising on it every day for the last week and our standard of play has definitely improved.

I first started playing variants of pool and snooker when I was my son’s age. The Sixth Form Common Room at school had a battered old half-sized snooker table. You could play a form of snooker (10 reds rather than the usual 15) but we usually played a version of pool for speed, reds versus colours. Later in my time in Sixth Form I became a prefect. One of the main benefits was the use of the prefects’ Common Room, which had a far superior half-sized snooker table. The little skill that I developed for cue-based sports came from my time on those two tables: enough to be able to direct the white ball towards its intended target, not enough to guarantee that the target ball would end up where I wanted it to. Still, it meant that when we played pool in local pubs I didn’t disgrace myself completely, and as long as I hit a couple of decent shots I didn’t care too much whether I won or lost. It’s just a bit of fun. That’s my approach to most games and sports. I would rather lose a quick, open game of Scrabble in which I placed a couple of seven-letter words than win a long drawn-out, closed game with no room to place long words in the final few rounds. You won’t find me getting too serious about a game of pool, trying to snooker my opponent and win at all costs.

Over the years, playing on that miniature table, and now on its larger replacement, I taught both of my children the concept of the whitewash: potting all your spots or stripes (or reds or yellows), and the black ball, before your opponent has potted any of theirs. It has never happened in any of the many hundreds of games that we have played. Even so, my son and I say the same things every time we play. As soon as one of us pots a ball we say: “The whitewash is still on.” And then, usually immediately afterwards when the next player pots a ball, we say: “The whitewash is no longer on”. We act as if there’s a chance of one of us winning by a whitewash, but I don’t expect it to happen any time soon. If it does, at some future date, it will be him whitewashing me. He’s already way better than I was at his age.


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