sporting English

A bad day at the office

Following Stan Carey’s introduction, sporting English month continues with a guest post by Andrew Delahunty, a freelance author and lexicographer. Among Andrew’s many books is Talking Balls: Getting to grips with the language of sport, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.


It is difficult to explain what happened. It was a bad day at the office.

What is the speaker talking about, do you suppose? A stressful meeting? Poor sales figures? A broken photocopier? In fact, this is West Ham United’s manager Avram Grant commenting on his team’s 5-0 defeat by Newcastle United in January.

Sport may seem far removed from the day-to-day realities of office life: desktop computers, in trays, expenses claims, water coolers, commuting … And indeed you’d be hard-pressed to describe professional football, for instance, as a white-collar job, even if some team strips do happen to have one. So it always strikes me as slightly incongruous when a player or manager faces the cameras and microphones for a post-match interview and sums up a poor performance as a bad day at the office. The phrase is intended to suggest a matter-of-fact, no-excuses acknowledgment that an individual or team was below par (to borrow an idiom derived from golf), and has become something of a sporting cliché. And while a football manager in a suit using the expression is one thing, it can sound very odd, almost comical, coming from the mouth of a mud-spattered rugby player or a breathless sprinter.

In a similar vein (though perhaps more blue-collar than white-collar) is the expression put a shift in. When non-League Crawley Town narrowly lost to Manchester United in an FA Cup tie in February, Crawley’s captain Pablo Mills said that ‘the lads put a great shift in’.

And here’s ex-footballer Paul Merson, writing in the Daily Star newspaper:

If you are not playing well and not scoring goals, a lot of supporters will accept that. But when you are not putting a shift in, that’s when the supporters start to get on your case.

A player or team that ‘puts a shift in’ doesn’t stop running and shows an admirable level of commitment, physical effort, and stamina. Of course, shifts are usually associated with working in mines and factories, not sports pitches.

Rugby offers another contribution to the sport-as-a-job lexicon. A winger (a player who mainly plays down the side of the pitch) sometimes feels that he’s not seeing enough of the ball by the touchline and decides to move further into the centre of the pitch for a while in an effort to get more involved in the game. A player who does this is said to go looking for work, as in this recent assessment by Wales’s Shane Williams of England’s winger Chris Ashton:

Ashton has scored some nice tries and what’s good about him is that he is a player who goes looking for work.

And after a hard day’s work, there’s the journey home. Racing drivers make themselves sound like delayed commuters when they talk about being stuck in traffic or held up in traffic behind slow-moving cars at the back of the field:

I lost ground at the start as I had some problems warming up the tyres. After that I got held up in traffic, which made it very difficult to make any progress in the second half of the race.

Motor racing does at least involve cars. But the expression is also used in similar situations in other types of racing, such as athletics and horse racing. And in sports like rugby and American football a player with the ball runs into traffic when he finds himself in a crowded area of the pitch where a large number of opposing players are suddenly on hand to impede progress.

I think I’ll stop there. After all, credit to the lad, he’s put a real shift in.

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Andrew Delahunty

1 Comment

  • Although “traffic” now indicates cars, surely the horse racers are entitled to claim a bit of precedence? Traffic must have been used to talk about horses and coaches/carts/etc.

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