Game On: American Sporting Expressions

Anyone familiar with the American vernacular knows that Americans are big on sports. An impressive number of expressions and phrases come from the sporting world — and often from games played primarily in the United States. Baseball, American football, basketball, and even horse racing have contributed heavily to the vocabulary of Americans. It’s no wonder folks learning English can feel overwhelmed. Here’s a list of some common phrases that have made the leap from American athletics to daily usage.

UPDATE: After writing this, I learned that Wikipedia already has a great list dedicated to the subject. Thanks, Parker, for the tip! I hope my linguistic contributions still make the cut. (^_^)

Baseball

  • Touch base: To (briefly) get in contact with someone. From the rule in baseball that you have to return to a base, or touch it, before running to the next one.
  • Raincheck: To postpone something for another time or day. Originates from baseball games that get rained out, and the fans receive ticket refunds, or “rainchecks”, to return for the postponed game.
  • Out of left field: Something surprising or unexpected, as in “it came out of left field.” In baseball, left field is the side of the playing field with the least amount of action, primarily due to the fact that most batters are right-handed, so that they hit into right field. A ball in left field is a much rarer occasion.
  • Curveball: An action or discussion with a twist, often unpleasant. This word comes from a type of pitch that curves before reaching the batter, making it extremely difficult to hit the ball.
  • Right off the bat: To do something immediately. Comes from when a batter hits the ball, and the players spring into action right as the ball leaves the bat.
  • Winding up: To get ready for something. From the pitcher pulling back her arm before throwing the ball.
  • Home field advantage: The extra leg-up you get from being in your own territory. From the assumed advantage the home team has from knowing the field and having their fanbase in the stadium.
  • (Way) off base: Incorrect or out of place. Derives from being caught not on your base.
  • Ballpark figure: Rough estimate. From the approximate sizes of ballparks, as compared to the precise measurements of the playing field.
  • Bases covered: To have everything prepared. In baseball, the team in the filed ensures that they have a player marking or covering each of the bases.
  • Heavy hitter: An important or influential person. From a batter who has a successful batting record.
  • Strike out / Three strikes: To fail. California even adapted the “Three Strikes law” which stipulates a mandatory and extended prison term for people who commit serious crimes on three occasions.
  • Game on: To be ready; to begin. The origins are pretty obvious, eh?
  • Play hardball: To be or act tough. This phrase compares the type of ball used in baseball versus softball, as some consider softball a less difficult game than baseball.
  • To choke: to make a mistake, especially under pressure.
  • Play the field: To flirt with or date several people.
  • Get to first base: To describe physical intimacies. Most people call kissing “first base”, but the definitions really vary as to what each base represents.
  • Out of your league: Someone that is unobtainable, usually because they are perceived to be more successful or attractive. In baseball, when a competitor is more skilled and playing in a higher or tougher league.
  • Eye on the ball: To stay focused; to be on track for a target or goal. In baseball, just try hitting or catching without watching the ball. You’ll soon learn why this is good advice.

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American football

  • Pre-game: Drinking before going out to a bar or party. From the honored tradition of having beers before the football game begins. Closely related to tailgate parties, the alcohol-and-BBQ heavy gathering in the stadium parking lot, celebrated from the back of a pick-up truck.
  • Pep talk: To motivate or encourage someone. Comes from the locker room speeches given by coaches before a game or at halftime.
  • Take the ball and run / To run with it:  To move forward with something.
  • Fumble: To make a mistake. In football, when a player drops the ball — which in fact is also used as an expression in its own right.
  • Second string: Not the best; someone in reserve. Probably describes  someone who fumbles a lot.
  • Stalling for time: To delay a decision or information. From football (and other sports) that use certain tactics to delay the game.
  • Game face: To be serious or intense about something. An important trait in a sport like football, where intimidation counts a good deal.
  • Game plan: To have a strategy.
  • Time out: To take a break or pause. Strangely, this is what parents and teachers also call the corner where kids have to sit as a punishment for misbehaving. As in “Go sit in time out.”

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Basketball

  • Call the shots: To make decisions. In basketball, to decide who shoots.
  • Caught flat-footed: To be unprepared. Players who are “on their toes” are prepared and quicker to move into action.
  • Cherry picking: To take of someone else’s work; to take the easy route. In basketball, a player standing under the basket collecting someone else’s shot and making the basket for themselves. Also sometimes used for preventing the ball from going in the basket by grabbing the ball from inside the net.
  • Out of bounds: To describe a taboo or unacceptable action. From many sports, including basketball, where the ball is out of play once it crosses the boundary lines.
  • Long shot: To have a low probability of success. In basketball, taking a shot from far away, a long shot, has a lower statistical chance of making it in the basket than.
  • Shag it: Now most speakers of British English will laugh at this expression, but no joke. American English uses “shag it” to say “fetch a ball”, for example after shooting it over the rim or, in soccer, over the goal posts. I won’t advocate using “shag it” frequently, but it’s a quirky enough sport phrase that I had to include it.

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Horse racing

I never thought horse racing would have such an influence on the English language, but when thinking about sports idioms, it turns out that many of phrases are drawn from the days at the tracks.

  • Homestretch: Near to completing a task. On a race track, the final leg of the race.
  • Jockey into position: Working to put yourself in a strategically good spot. From horse jockeys pushing into an advantageous position during the race.
  • Not up to scratch: Not having the right qualities or qualifications. In horse racing, this means the horse isn’t capable of winning.
  • Charley horse: A muscle cramp, especially in the calf. Ok, this phrase doesn’t actually have anything to do with horse racing. Instead, it comes from baseball players who commonly got this type of cramp in their legs. There’s some speculation about how the phrase was coined, notably from the pitcher Charley Radbourne who cramped in a baseball game back in the nineteenth century. What a linguistically infamous muscle spasm.

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Alright, that’s it for the quick & dirty run-through. For anyone daunted by the seemingly impossible range of American sporting expressions, don’t throw in the towel just yet. As much as Americans talk a big game, they have no problem using speech that’s not loaded with athletic nuance. Here’s my pep talk: The ball’s in your court. There’s still plenty of time to rally and get yourself up to speed. You can’t win ‘em all, but remember, it ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings.

Images: [John P. Henry, Washington AL, at Polo Grounds, NY (baseball)] (LOC), Fenner, Penn. (LOC), Carnegie playground 5th Ave. N.Y.C. (LOC), and Monmouth Horse Show [jumping] (LOC) uploaded by the Library of Congress. All images in the public domain.

5 Comments on "Game On: American Sporting Expressions"

  1. Anonymous says:

    A few thoughts:

    For football, you could give “the whole nine yards.” Almost certainly an erroneous derivation, but what can you do. With a little more sicherheit…

    Baseball – “Bottom of the ninth”: referring of course to a high-pressure end-game situation. We might say that (for the last week or so) this election has been there.

    Also baseball – “Grand slam”/”home run”: a total success.

    Basketball – “Slam dunk”: a certain success.

    Horse racing = “Win by a nose”: a very close victory

    That’s all I have for now, but I LOVE making lists like this. (Also, this may ruin your day, but fortunately it’s woefully incomplete: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sports_idioms )

  2. parker says:

    that last comment was from me, parker. not anonymous.

  3. thornet says:

    @parker thanks for the good additions! Yeah, “the whole nine yards” is a funny instance of an athletic appropriation from military lingo (which, needless to say, happens a lot). I hear it comes from the nine yards of machine gun ammo, so when people say they are doing something completely or giving 100%, it’s “the whole nine yards.”

    And thanks for both making and ruining my day with the Wikipedia list! Guess they beat me to the punch.(^_^)

  4. “taking a crack at it” has to come from baseball

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