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Sports in Everyday Speech

The Red Sox celebrate their World Series win. Photo: EPA/Jason Szenes

Last week the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, and while other folks were debating the bushy beards and the obstruction call, I was thinking about idioms. (Yes, this is what it’s like for me as a linguist and a sports fan.) I was also thinking it was a shame that the Detroit Tigers were not in the World Series, but that is not really relevant to this post.

The language of sport pops up in idioms all over American English, some more obvious and some less so. You don’t need to be a sports enthusiast to be using expressions from a range of sports in your daily speech. And I think baseball may have contributed more expressions than any other sport. (Readers, feel free to prove me wrong!)

Here’s a taste of common expressions from baseball, some if not many of which may strike you as obvious: in the ballpark, in the same ballpark, ballpark figure, big league, bush league, strike out, cover all the bases, throw someone a curveball, go into extra innings, step up to the plate, hit a homerun, knock it out of the park, play hardball, heavy hitter, ninth inning (that is, the 11th hour), pinch hit, rain check, right off the bat, screwball, whole new ballgame, designated driver (which appears in 1982, and is derived from designated hitter).

The common idiom off base, though, has traveled far enough semantically that many may not realize it also comes from baseball. If runners are off the base, they can be tagged out. From this starting point, the expression started to mean “caught unawares or off guard,” and by 1940, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it had acquired the now familiar meaning “off target, mistaken, misguided.” People can still be off base today, but so can opinions, criticisms, questions, TV programming, predictions, risk assessments, and economic decisions.

(To learn about how the origins of the word jazz seem to be related to baseball, see Ben Zimmer’s excellent column from the Boston Globe.)

If you’re more into boxing than baseball, boxing gives us the useful expression of having someone in your corner when that person is providing you support in some way—not to mention such common idioms as against the ropes, pull your punches, throw in the towel, saved by the bell, and down for the count.

If you’re not down for the count, it might come down to the wire, an expression that originates in horse racing, which also gives us the inside track, win by a nose, and get a good run for your money. And if someone gives you a tip on a horse, it is pretty trustworthy if it is from a trainer or a jockey, but it is even more trustworthy if it is straight from the horse’s mouth.

With much of the sports terminology we have adopted into general vocabulary, we can see the metaphor or the source if we step back. We take timeouts or warm the bench, and we can see the sports references if we try (but most of the time we use these expressions without necessarily conjuring up an image of sports).

That said, it is useful to remember that sports references in English will vary by culture. Many English speakers around the world have little contact with the sport of baseball and may find expressions involving designated hitters and stepping up to the plate far from transparent. American English speakers, at the same time, may be less clear about why a sticky wicket is a difficult circumstance; but if you are from a nation where cricket is a national pastime, the idiom’s origins will be much clearer: that the wicket or pitch, if it is wet, can make things much more difficult and unpredictable.

While the baseball season is now over, I hope that perhaps a weekend football or rugby game will have you thinking about when you choose to punt far from the playing field or a pick-up game of basketball will have you musing about slamdunks without basketballs. The language of sports permeates everyday speech, whether you read the sports pages or not.

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Note: If you’re now thinking about other sports-related idioms whose histories you would like to explore, Michael Quinion is a remarkable word sleuth and he has a free website called “World Wide Words,” which is an idiomatic treasure trove. There is also the ever invaluable OED.

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