Be a sport about clichés

Posted by on March 01, 2011

In his book Strictly Speaking, the newscaster and author Edwin Newman wrote: “There is no way to measure the destructive effect of sports broadcasting on ordinary American English, but it must be considerable.”

This is harsh, but you can see where he’s coming from. Sports commentary has a reputation for stating the obvious, resorting to hyperbole and, maybe most of all, relying on clichés. When the umpteenth soccer pundit (typically a former player) tells us it’s a “game of two halves”, we might sigh wearily, grudgingly acknowledge the validity of this tired truism, or idly wish there were a fresh way of saying it, or more ways of not saying it at all.

Perhaps even more reviled is “at the end of the day”. This throwaway idiom is also popular with politicians – Irish ones, anyway – and means something between “ultimately” and nothing whatsoever. Its versatility and existential vagueness might be partly why it’s so commonly used: novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has defended it as “very deep” and “very close to reflecting the human condition”.

Sports generally have their own lingo, sometimes a vast one: the Dickson Baseball Dictionary has over 1,000 pages. Many expressions spread from sport to general usage, and baseball is very productive in this respect. I’ve never watched the game, but I’ve often heard curve ball, in the ballpark, and ground rules. These phrases either originated in baseball or were popularised by it, and they have been adapted so widely that people understand them intuitively in all sorts of contexts.

Sports terminology can be entertaining, too. When I encounter a sport I know little about, the language of analysts makes it more interesting and enjoyable. The most effective commentators are fans as well as experts (and with a reasonable command of language). They know the sport inside out, they love it passionately, and they have idiosyncratic ways of communicating their insights and enthusiasm.

Broadcast discussions about sport, be they live commentaries or off-the-cuff interviews, inevitably fall back on stale banalities now and then. But whether you appreciate sports clichés, ignore them or denounce them, they’re not all bad. They’re probably just a sign that the speaker isn’t giving 110%.

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Comments (6)
  • enjoyed this article Stan, very interesting…

    Posted by Georgina Capone on 2nd March, 2011
  • Thanks, Georgina! Glad you enjoyed it.

    Posted by Stan on 2nd March, 2011
  • You have to take it one cliché at a time because there are no easy clichés in this language. A cliché is a cliché is a cliché and you’ve got to give 110 clichés coz the team that scores the most clichés wins.

    A

    Posted by Oisín on 4th March, 2011
  • Lovely piece. I particularly like your definition of “at the end of the day”.

    I enjoy sports clichés passing into everyday language. I imagine more people throw in the towel, or toe the line (debatable, that one, I know!), than are interested in boxing.

    When I moved to France a few years ago, I desperately needed to colloquialize my book-learned French. It became far easier when I discovered French sports commentators and players used many of the same clichés, and at least as often, as anglophone ones. My time in France was, in a very real sense, and thanks to the team, a game of two halves.

    Posted by Pip on 4th March, 2011
  • Oisín: That gave me a good giggle. Thank you. I used to avoid clichés like the plague, but you can’t win ’em all.

    Pip: Thank you for the generous words, and the boxing examples. Another one I hear regularly, from the debate-as-fighting metaphor, is that someone (generally male) “doesn’t pull his punches”. Your story from France is a charming one, and a great demonstration of the practical utility of clichés; I expect you enjoyed the second half far more than the first.

    Posted by Stan on 4th March, 2011
  • […] Be a sport about clichés, I take issue with Edwin Newman’s lament that there is “no way to measure the destructive […]

    Posted by Reporting on sporting clichés and metaphors « Sentence first on 4th April, 2011
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