sporting English

They think it’s all over…

‘What’s your English? 2011’ will be moving on this week, from sport to metaphor and figurative language. But – as many of our sports-related posts demonstrate – there’s a strong link between the two themes. Stan Carey’s piece this week celebrates the wonderfully original similes dreamed up by sports commentator Ray Hudson. Meanwhile, Andrew Delahunty has shown how people writing or talking about football will often enliven their descriptions by recycling expressions from the most diverse areas of life, such as hunting, anatomy, or working in an office. Going in the opposite direction, Stan has discussed the way that words used in sporting discourse are often used metaphorically in general English. Stan mentions baseball terms like curve ball and in the ballpark. There are plenty of others, too (getting to first base, step up to the plate, and take a rain check come to mind), all of which British speakers know and use – even though few Brits know much about baseball.

Why some sports contribute more metaphors to the language than others is an interesting question. My own favourite sport is cricket (don’t all yawn at once) and it is a fact that British English has taken more idioms from cricket than from any other sport. If a politician faces hostile questioning, for example, we might say that the interviewer has put him or her on the back foot by bowling a googly (roughly equivalent, metaphorically speaking, to throwing someone a curve ball). The poor politician might then be said to be on a sticky wicket (in a difficult position) or to be stumped (unable to think of an answer or explanation). These are all expressions that originate from the language of cricket, as does the idea of doing something off your own bat. Even the hat trick (whether it’s three goals in football, or any sequence of three successes – like ‘a hat trick of number one albums’) was a cricketing term before it became part of the general language.

Yet, even in the English-speaking world, cricket is a minority sport. (The exception is the Indian subcontinent, where it is more like a religion.) So why has cricket given rise to so many metaphors, when relatively few come from football (aka soccer), the world’s most popular game? The explanation may have something to do with class (another theme we’ll be tackling, later this year, as part of ‘What’s your English?’). There’s a saying attributed to the Duke of Wellington that ‘the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’. The reference (if Wellington ever really said this) would have been to the cricket fields of this elite school, where, it was believed, England’s ruling classes learned the values and ‘character’ which enabled them to run their empire. The connection is made even more explicitly in an imperialistic 19th century poem by Henry Newbolt, which alternates between the tense final moments of a cricket match, and a desperate battle in the desert. Cricket was at that time very much the preserve of the British upper classes, and even in our more egalitarian times, its influence on the language endures.

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Michael Rundell


  • I think in American sports you have a similar situation, with baseball, cricket’s cousin, dominating in the simile department. There’s “Home run,” “Ninth Inning,” “Up to bat,” “three strikes,” “World Series” (as in “it’s the World Series of chess!”), and of course, the quintessentially American use of “bases” to describe various levels of sexual achievement. The rest of American sports don’t contribute the same wealth of expressions. There is basketball’s “slam dunk,” I suppose, and a slew of “Super Bowl” metaphors. But people don’t typically use the word “touchdown” to describe accomplishment, don’t talk about “free throws” in terms of second chances, or use hockey terminology to suggest ANYTHING. What is it about the “bat and ball” games?

  • Thanks for your Comment, Ben: good to have confirmation that baseball spawns more idioms than other sports in the US (just as cricket does in the UK). As to why this should be, there is probably a PhD thesis in this!

  • (sorry about that – comment posted itself before I could finish) I looked at sporting metaphors in English once and I seem to remember that boxing contributed a large number. I wonder if that is because – like cricket and baseball perhaps? – boxing is seen as a test of character, rather than simply a sport?

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