Review: Sports Talk by Colin McNairn

You don’t really have a choice over whether or not you like sports if you speak English. All bets are off, bad break, curveball, down to the wire, get the ball rolling, grandstanding, level playing field, take the bait, track record—expressions taken from sports are everywhere and everyday in English, so much so that we forget many of these clichés, idioms, and tropes even come from sports in the first place.

Take at the drop of a hat, or “without delay or good reason.” According to Colin McNairn in his new book, Sports Talk: How It Has Penetrated Our Everyday Language (FriesenPress, 2017):

The hat in the expression is likely of the kind that was frequently used, back in the 19th century, to signal the start of a race, a fight or other competition. The person charged with getting the contest started would, typically, doff his hat, hold it at arms-length, and then suddenly lower the straightened arm, hat in hand, in a downward sweeping motion, which would signal the official start.

Or did you realize that down to the wire, or “until the last possible moment,” comes from horse-racing? McNairn explains that the wire here refers to ones “strung above the finish line of North American racecourses so that, in a close race, it was easier for the track judge to determine which horse finished first.”

In Sports Talk, McNairn covers, blow-by-blow, a whopping 650 expressions derived from over 35 sports sports ranging from football to frisbee, with some history, trivia, anecdotes, and quotes on the sidelines. The author—whose first book, In A Manner of Speaking, I also reviewed—kindly sent me a copy.

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Inside the etymological cave of “cub”

After a 108-year drought, the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series. The team fought their way back to victory over the Tribe with all the ferocity and tenacity of their ursine namesake – or at least when that cub comes of age. In honor of the champions, let’s have a peek into the etymological cave of cub.

Cub

The official mascot of the Chicago Cubs is a young bear cub. The Chicago Daily News nicknamed the team the Cubs in 1902, as they’ve been called ever since. But previously, the club was known as the White Stockings, Colts, and even the Orphans.

In the English language, cub didn’t refer to young bears but young foxes. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the word back to 1530. It was soon after extended to the young of other animals, like lions, tigers, and bears, who were originally called whelps. We can trace its metaphorical use for an “undeveloped youth” to Shakespeare, “apprentice” or “beginner” to Mark Twain.

While cub appears relatively late in English, its origin is obscure. Many etymologists have attempted a connection to the Old Irish cuib, a “dog,” but the historical record doesn’t quite bear this out. If this is the case, the Irish-based cub would be cognate to canine, cynic, hound, and other Indo-European words for dogs. Others have linked it to the Old Norse kobbi, a “seal,” from a base sense of a shapeless “block” or “stump,” alluding to the clumsy lump that is a newborn seal. This kobbi is related to a Germanic base for “cup” and “head” (think kopf). The Old Norse theory, involving that blobby, baby seal, also resonates with the old myth that baby bears were born without any form and had to be licked into shape by their mothers. 

While the etymology of cub may be obscure, the Chicago Cubs have proven this season that they are anything but – even if it took over a century.

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