A mall rat in the family

We have a couple of young overseas visitors staying with us. One of them is a Canadian. It is interesting to see his perspective of the cold weather as he wanders around in shorts while I am rugged up in jeans and jumpers. He laughs when we tell him it will be a cold day when it is around 10 degrees. Anyway I get my revenge laughing at him when he tells us he is ducking down the road to the “mall”. (OED—a large, enclosed shopping area from which traffic is excluded).

American English

I don’t disparage North American English. Like Australian English, it is full of words from the language as it used to be spoken by the European settlers. However, our visitor’s use of “mall” to describe the local Westfield shopping centre seems so incongruous. Watching American TV and films it is common for the young characters to go to hang out at the mall (mall rats). However, it is not that common for Australian teenagers.

Malls hold a significant place in American culture. They house retail establishments, restaurants and food outlets, as well as entertainment options. The Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minnesota, is the largest shopping complex in the US. Opened in 1992, it attracts millions of visitors every year. It has 500 retail stores, 50 eateries, a large indoor theme park, and an aquarium with 100 sharks and 4,500 other sea creatures.

The word history of mall

When I started to do my research around the word, “mall” I found myself in quite a surreal place. The word history is not what it seems. It starts its life not as a group of shops but as a game, pall mall played by the European aristocracy of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The game of pall mall

Pall mall is an early form of croquet. It is related to Italian trucco (also known as lawn billiards or trucks in English) and jeu de mail (a French form of ground billiards). The name comes from the Italian pallamaglio. It means ball mallet, from Latin palla, for ball, and malleus meaning hammer, or mallet.

The game was played in a long alley with an elevated iron hoop at one end. The objective was to strike a wooden ball, using a heavy wooden mallet down the alley and through the hoop with the fewest number of hits. Thus it was similar to both golf, due to its long playing area; and to croquet in hitting a wooden ball with a mallet through a hoop.

Pall-mall was played in Italy and France before spreading to England during the 16th century. “Pall Mall” referred to the game, the mallet used and the alley where it was played.

Many cities still have roads or promenades that were originally pall mall alleys. Examples include Pall Mall in London, Palmaille in Hamburg, Rue du Mail in Paris, Avenue du Mail in Geneva, and Maliebaan in Utrecht. Some of these “pall malls” transformed into pedestrian shopping areas which gave us the shortened word “malls”.

Going to the mall

The North Americans adopted the word “mall” in the 1950s. It describes the large shopping centres built away from suburban areas that were only accessed by motor cars. These areas killed “downtowns” (what we call “city centres”), the main business and commercial areas of cities, and changed the way we live.