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Editor's Corner: Expressions from the Love of Sports

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Vincent Valentine, MD
Links Editor-in-Chief
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

There are many words, expressions, analogies and metaphors from the language of sports enmeshed in everyday conversation of English vocabulary that largely go unnoticed. For example, children in the English world experience "time outs" because they are misbehaving or in need of a break from playing, which comes from sports. Also, when involved in a discussion outside your purview, you might consider "sitting on the sidelines" or "sit this one out." In so doing, you position yourself as a spectator or as a substitute currently not playing in this discussion. These expressions come from many sports, including football.

Football is an old sport originally referenced in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1424 as an open-air sport with an inflated ball. The word football in most of the world refers to Association Football: a game played by teams of 11 players who kick a ball toward the goals at both ends of the field. Only goalies can touch the ball with their hands or arms. This kind of football is the most popular sport in the world. In America, this sport is known as soccer derived from the official name of Association Football, which has been shortened to Assoc. Assoc, analogous to the rugger in rugby, has given us the name soccer.

In American football there is the "punt," because that's what a team does when it runs out of good options in a quest to make 10 yards in 3 plays or downs. If unsuccessful, the team has the option to punt or give the ball to the other team. There is the famous "Hail Mary" that came to life in a playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings in 1975. I witnessed this play when Roger Staubach threw a desperation pass to Drew Pearson, who ran the football in for a score to win the game 17-14. Staubach told the press that he closed his eyes on this play and said a Hail Mary. The Hail Mary is now generalized to not only football passes but also to any kind of desperation move.

Suburban American mothers frequently taxi their children to athletic events or children's activities. In 1996, "soccer mom" was added to the OED defining any such woman viewed as a member of a particular and frequently influential class of voters or consumers. These soccer moms are the "swing voters" in election coverage. In 2008, "hockey mom," came to national attention when Sarah Palin described herself as a "hockey mom" that election year when she stated that the only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is lipstick.

Tennis is another word from the early 15th century that actually appears in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Henry V referring to the way fortunes may play us or bat us back and forth. "Tennis arm" and "tennis elbow" were recognized as medical conditions in the 19th century. "Tennis shirt" (T-shirt) and "tennis shoe" have moved beyond the sport of tennis into our everyday vocabulary. "Ace" is from tennis, but why "Love" for zero? Perhaps it comes from the expression, "I did it for love or for nothing", hence zero in tennis.

The word boxing came up in the 16th century referring to fighting with fists, later with boxing gloves and here we have "saved by the bell," and if not "saved by the bell," we could be "down for the count." This means that we're out of the running or not considered. A "knockout blow" from boxing is a "knockout idea, performance, or person" with overwhelming quality. Such performance or an individual might "bowl us over," which could be "bowling us over" which comes from cricket. With such amazement or surprise, we might be "floored" an expression seemingly popularized by boxing when a boxer is floored. When in trouble, we might be "on the ropes"; and when we give up, we "throw in the towel." In boxing, throwing in the towel is when the boxer cannot continue. The towel is thrown in by the coach or trainers from the boxer's corner. We all know and hope that we have good people "in our corner" to support or counsel us. People will say things like, "I'm in your corner," to say, "I want to support you." Also, in boxing, one isn't supposed to "hit below the belt," which has generalized to any unsportsmanlike or unfair conduct, and we "pull our punches," when we don't criticize something or someone as harshly as we could. And of course today some of us wear "boxer shorts," "boxer briefs," "boxers," speedos or thongs.

From basketball we have the "slam dunk" and from golf we have the "gimme" or the "chip shot." But these expressions are not always easy or a guarantee. While all expressions to this point are intuitive to most Americans and less so outside the United States, the situation is reversed with the expressions "hat trick" referring to three successes and a "sticky wicket," referring to a difficult circumstance which come from cricket. I am sure there are many others from others sports of which I'm unaware.

Most everyday expressions today actually come from baseball and include: "in the ballpark," "in the same ballpark," a "ballpark figure," "big league," "bush league," to "cover all the bases," to "throw someone a curveball," go into "extra innings," "knock it out of the park," "play hardball," be a "heavy hitter," "go into the ninth inning" (aka "the eleventh hour"), "pinch hit," "rain check," "right off the bat," "step up to the plate," "whole new ballgame," and "designated driver." Designated driver is based on the "designated hitter" in baseball. Running the bases in baseball has resulted in some expressions now used outside of baseball: "Getting to first base," which means you've achieved the first step in a project; or "touching base," or you could be "off base" when you are caught off guard similar to when a baseball player is not paying attention when they're off base trying to steal second.

If too far off base, one might end up in left field. But I really believe in right field is where you don't want to be in baseball. In right field is when you're out of action to the point of boredom, almost uselessness, most of the time. However, the bias against left-handedness is witnessed here in the English language when we refer to someone in left field meaning that they are "disoriented" or "out of contact with reality" but it is the right fielder who may be sort of daydreaming while waiting for someone to hit the ball out that way. But the expression is not "out in right field." Recall the Latin borrowings, sinister means left and dexterous means right. The expression when you're not tuned into whatever will put you "out in left field."

The most popular expression from baseball is the "homerun." The final achievement of whatever goal is considered a homerun. Also, the work "balk" means to stop abruptly or pull up when a horse stops at an obstacle or at a ridge or mound in the land referring to the ridge between two furrows. The pitcher on the mound can abruptly pull up and be called for a balk in baseball.

Finally in reference to Valentine's Day, sometimes dating is referred to as a game or a sport which is certainly full of baseball metaphors about bases, a score or scores. Time and decorum prevents us from going there but it is out there. Be sure to read this month's Laughing Links where I leave you with the "stalemate" from one of my favorite games, Chess, which is really about marriage. Happy Valentine's Day!

And be sure to check out the difference between football and baseball by George Carlin in his YouTube clip, "Baseball vs Football".

Disclosure Statement: the author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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