linguistics and lexicography Love English

Who’s afraid of a sweeper keeper?

   ©  PhotoDisc / Getty Images / Steve ColeIn sport, as in other areas of life, fashions come and go, and football is no exception. Of course the core terminology, like the basics of the game, remains the same, and you can find an excellent summary of footballing language here. But styles of play change, along with the colour of the players’ shoes. For a while total football is all the rage, then it’s tiki taka. Man-to-man marking is the answer, or maybe zonal marking will give the desired result. The golden goal becomes the silver goal, and then both fade into oblivion. The vuvuzela gives way to the caxirola, replaced in its turn by the devilish diabolica. Many of the terms that come to the fore during major sporting competitions are ephemeral. Who now speaks of cloggers or chocolate wrists?

My favourite new term of the World Cup so far is sweeper keeper. This is not strictly speaking a neologism, having been around for a while, but it occurs only five times in the vast and up-to-date enTenTen corpus. Its current prominence is due to the fact that Germany’s goalkeeper Manuel Neuer regularly comes forward to tackle opposition players. His fellow defenders – playing unusually far forward in a defensive strategy known as a high line – rely on him to stop the opposition getting too close to the goal.

So why does sweeper keeper appeal, to sports writers as well as to me? Stan Carey has written about reduplication, and how the repeated sounds and rhythms of reduplicated words appeal to the human ear from infancy on. Sweeper keeper has a satisfying swing to it, as well as being a shorthand way of referring to an unusual type of player. And I have to confess that in my case, it has the added advantage of evoking the title and lyrics of a catchy song by Abba.

If you’re in the mood to read more about the language of the beautiful game, click on the links below.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter


  • ‘Sweeper keeper’? Pah! When I was a boy we often used to have games of football with ‘rush goalies’ who doubled both as an outfield player and, when needed (and if he could get back to his line in time), as the goalkeeper. All wonderfully frenetic, as I remember. Perhaps FIFA should consider using them in the next World Cup.

  • This term is a new one on me, Andrew (games of football did not figure hugely in my childhood…). Wikipedia has: “Rush goalie, also known as a fly goalie, fly keeper, or goalie when (in parts of Yorkshire) is a variation of football in which the role of the goalkeeper is more flexible than normal.” I love the idea of a ‘goalie when’. Anyone have any more neglected footballing terms to share?

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