Posted by on March 08, 2011

Sporting English month has – so far – explored clichés and the ‘sport as a workplace‘ lexicon. Today Stan Carey continues with the discussion of the language of sport with a closer look at the word goal.


In many ball sports, the goal is to score a goal in the goal. Immediately we see that the word goal has several related meanings. It can indicate the physical structure, typically a net with a frame, in which a player tries to put the ball; it can be the act of doing this (“scoring a goal”); and, more figuratively, it can refer to the aim or intention behind it. Or behind anything: an alternative goal could be to enjoy the game.

Although goal is a three-star red word in Macmillan Dictionary (i.e., one of the most frequently used words in English), its origin is obscure. In Middle English it meant boundary or limit. Walter Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language connects it to the French gaule, a pole, rod, or round stick: the winning post in a race. Its familiar meaning in a ball-sports context dates from the 1540s, as does the figurative sense of something you hope to achieve.

This last sense is very common wherever progress is tracked or measurable, be it business, getting fit, or doing the ironing. A typical goal when writing is to share something interesting, and to write well enough that you don’t repel or irritate readers. Their time is precious; it is a writer’s duty not to waste or abuse it. In rare cases, though, it’s possible to repel and irritate readers and still produce a work of literature.

From the sublime to the absurd (something at which sport excels): I remember, as a soccer-mad child, reading a Billy’s Boots comic in which Billy scored a goal and exclaimed, “Yes! That’s my hat trick!” A picture might be worth a thousand words, but only when interpreted sensibly. I didn’t know what a hat trick was, and assumed it was a word for the type of goal Billy had scored: threading it with outrageous precision through the goalkeeper’s outstretched arms. Inspired but misguided, I spent days failing to meet my goal of reproducing this unlikely feat.

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Comments (6)
  • I remember the little prince while reading this article. The little prince drew an elephant eaten by a boa constrictor and other people interpreted that it as hat! I agree with you that pictures might be worth a thousand words, but only when interpreted sensibly.

    Posted by Grace R. on 9th March, 2011
  • Thanks for your comment, Grace. It has reminded me, in turn, of the old story of the blind men and the elephant.

    Posted by Stan on 9th March, 2011
  • […] up is an article about the word goal: I briefly explore its origins and semantics, and I recall my childhood confusion over the meaning […]

    Posted by Reporting on sporting clichés and metaphors « Sentence first on 4th April, 2011
  • […] should be a pleasure, not a chore. As I said at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, writers should strive to write well enough not to repel or irritate readers, whose time oughtn’t […]

    Posted by The Typographic Oath for editors « Sentence first on 12th April, 2011
  • I’ve just read the article 3 years after its birth but it’s still interesting for me and I have been struck with the fact what transformations words go through penetrating into another language. Thus the word “goal” lost its meanings in the Russian language but acquired a summerizing idea like “a score”. “Goal!” is an exclamation of Russian football fans when their team scores.

    Posted by Regina Chermokina on 12th July, 2014
  • That’s very true, Regina: words follow unpredictable paths both in their native language and in any languages that borrow them. Thanks for the interesting note on goal in Russia.

    Posted by Stan on 14th July, 2014
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