The Origin of Words and Phrases: Sports

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Podcast Transcript

The English language is a very odd thing. 

We use many phrases and idioms every day that make no sense if you don’t understand the cultural references behind them.

In particular, we have a large number of idioms that come from the world of sports. Idioms which are often used by people who know nothing about the sport being referenced. 

Learn more about idioms and phrases in the English language that have their origin in sports on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

For someone who doesn’t speak English as their first language, there can be phrases that are maddingly difficult to understand if you are just trying to learn it in a classroom environment. 

That is because so many of the phrases we use have some sort of cultural context. 

One of the biggest sources of these cultural references is the world of sports. There are many dozens of such idioms, so we might as well….dive right in. 

One sport that has given us a host of phrases is boxing. 

If someone supports you, that means you have someone standing in your corner. In boxing, between rounds, assistants to the boxer will stand in the corner of the ring, helping the boxer, treating cuts, giving them water, etc. 

When the next round starts, hopefully, the boxer will come out swinging. This means that you are getting an active or enthusiastic start to something. 

If you do that, you might be able to beat someone to the punch. Beating someone to the punch just means reacting in advance to something. If you know a teacher is going to complain about assignments being late, you could beat them to the punch by turning yours in before they say anything.

Hopefully, a boxer won’t get hit below the belt or receive a low blow. Both of these refer to a rule in boxing where it is illegal to hit someone below the waistline. Hitting below the belt refers to something dirty or underhanded. If someone says something particularly mean or nasty, it is said to be a low blow.

If you are not exerting your maximum effort, you could be said to be pulling your punches

If you are on the verge of defeat or failure, you are said to be on the ropes. If there is no way you can come back for something, then you are down for the count. In boxing, if you are on the mat and the referee counts to ten, then you lose by knockout.

However, if you are getting beat, you might get lucky and be saved by the bell. This is a fortune interruption that saves you something unpleasant. If you are stuck in a conversation you don’t want to be in, and your phone rings, you’ve been saved by the bell.

If you give up, then it is said you’ve thrown in the towel. This is a reference to the 19th-century practice of a manager ending a fight for his boxer by throwing a towel into the ring. 

If you lose on purpose, then it is said you took a dive

If you want to run for election, then you have to throw your hat into the ring. This comes from the early boxing tradition, where fighters would take on challengers from the crowd. Challengers would accept the challenge by literally throwing their hats into the boxing ring. 

Boxing isn’t the only sport that has given us many idioms. Thankfully, you all have a ringside seat for another sport that has given so many: horseracing.

If something is being resolved at the very last minute, it is said to be going down to the wire. A wire or a ribbon was often stretched across the finish line of a horserace. In a close race, it helped determine which horse was first.

Likewise, if you complete something just before a deadline, it is said that you finished it under the wire.

If a race was close, then the winner was said to have won by a nose, and before that point, the race would have been neck and neck.

If a race wasn’t close, the jockey on the lead horse would often sit up in the saddle and put his hands down before crossing the finish line. Today if something is obviously better than something else, we say it is hands down the best. 

If you rein something in, you are limiting its performance, whereas if you give someone free rein, then you allowing them to do whatever they want.

If you are nearing the end of something, then you are in the home stretch. The home stretch is the straight part of a horse track after the last turn and before the finish line. 

If you bring in someone who is far more talented than the average person, it can be said you’ve brought in a ringer.  A ringer was a horse who looked like another horse but was much faster. 

Golf has given us many phrases as well. 

If something is par for the course, then it is considered to be average or expected. If something is under par or sub par, then it is worse than average or not meeting expectations.

If you meet the minimal criteria for something, then you can be said to have made the cut.

If you are preparing something, then you are said to be teeing up

If you’ve screwed up and need to try again, then it is said you are taking a mulligan

Not all idioms come from particular sports. Some come from sports generally. 

If you are doing something for which you are not qualified, you are said to be out of your league. This can refer to a relegation system similar to how association football is organized in much of the world or to the minor league system in American baseball.

If you aren’t participating in something, it is said that you are watching from the sidelines, which is where players sit when they aren’t on the field.

If you need to pay attention to something, then you need to keep your eye on the ball. This usually references paying attention to what is important and not being distracted. 

If you don’t pay attention, then you could drop the ball

The largest source of sports-related idioms in English comes from team sports. 

Cricket has given us several phrases. 

A sticky wicket is said to be a difficult situation. It came from a cricket pitch where the grounds were wet, causing the ball to bounce unpredictably. 

If you are stumped, you are confused or don’t know the answer to a question. In cricket, if you are stumped, you are out because the wicketkeeper knocked down a wicket while the batter is out of his ground. When this occurs, the batsmen usually aren’t aware that it happened immediately because their back is turned, hence they are confused.

One idiom that has its origins in cricket, although people think it comes from other sports, it is the term hat trick.  If you score three goals in ice hockey or in association football, it is said you’ve scored a hat trick. In the NHL, people will throw their hats onto the rink when this happens.

However, the term actually comes from cricket. When a bowler took three wickets in three consecutive bowls, it was tradition for the team to buy the bowler a hat. 

Hat tricks are extremely rare in cricket.

When a ball is knocked out of a cricket oval on the fly, you are awarded six runs. If someone is given shocking or upsetting news, it is said to hit them for six or knock them for six.

Association football, aka soccer, has given us many sayings as well. 

If you accidentally do something against your own interests, it is said that you scored an own goal. In football, this is when a member of a team accidentally hits a ball into their own team’s goal.

If you change the objectives or rules of something while it is occurring, then it is said that you moved the goalposts

American football, likewise, has given us many idioms and phrases. 

If you change plans at the last moment, you are said to have called an audible. This is when a team is set to run a play, but at the last moment, the quarterback sees that the defense is prepared, so he will audibly shout out a change of plans at the last second.

If you are desperate, you might attempt to throw a hail mary at the last possible moment. A hail mary is a play in American football that doesn’t happen that often but can be very dramatic. In the closing seconds of a game, when a team only has time for one play but still has a lot of ground to cover, they will just throw the ball into the end zone and hope for the best.

The phrase comes from the Catholic prayer of the same name and was popularized by the Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach after the December 28, 1975, game against the Minnesota Vikings.  Staubach threw the ball almost 60 yards on the last play of the game for the winning touchdown. 

After the game, Staubach said, “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.”

If you avoid official channels for something, it can be said you’ve done an end run or an end around. In American football, an end run is when the player with the ball runs in a wide arc around all of his teammates rather than running through a hole in the line.

If you pave the way for someone else, you can be said to run interference for them. In football, this is when one player blocks opposing players so the player with the ball doesn’t have any obstacles.

A Monday morning quarterback is someone who comments on something with the benefit of hindsight. Most professional football games are played on Sundays, so criticizing or commenting on the game on Monday has the benefit of knowing how everything already turned out.

Basketball has added several idioms to the language.

If something is incredibly easy, it is said to be a slam dunk

If you extend maximum effort in something, you are said to put on a full-court press. In basketball, a full-court press involves putting defensive pressure on the other team over the entire length of the court, not just one half. 

Perhaps the sport that has given us the most idioms is baseball. 

If you hit something out of the park or hit a home run, you’ve been wildly successful or exceeded expectations. 

Likewise, a grand slam can be used as a superlative or can be used to describe four of something. A grand slam in baseball is a home run that is hit when there are players on all three of the bases, scoring four runs. 

The grand slam in golf or tennis is the four biggest tournament on the calendar.

If you need to know something approximately, you can ask for a ballpark figure or ballpark estimate.  This actually comes from nuclear scientists in the 1950s who used the size of a baseball park to determine if a missile was close enough to its target.

If you are saying something that is inappropriate, it is said that you are off base.

If you are aggressive in negotiating with someone, you are said to be playing hardball. Conversely, if an interviewer doesn’t challenge their subject, it is said that they are asking softball questions.  

If you bring up something unexpected, you are throwing a curveball

If you are invited to something but can’t attend but might be able to attend at a later date, you can say you will take a rain check. Rain checks used to be awarded to fans who purchased tickets to baseball games that were canceled due to rain. This allowed them to attend the game when it was completed or replayed.

A replacement for someone can be referred to as a pinch hitter. Someone who is next for something and is waiting is said to be on deck.

If you take responsibility for something, then it is said you’ve stepped up to the plate.

If you’ve failed at something, then it can be said that you’ve struck out

When you think about it, it is astonishing just how much of the English language is influenced by sports. We use many of these idioms all the time, even if we aren’t familiar with the sport that it originally came from. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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