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.

Continue reading “Review: Sports Talk by Colin McNairn”

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6 political expressions that come from sports and gaming

In the run-up to tonight’s high-stakes showdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, some polls are showing that the two candidates are locked in a virtual dead heat. And as the two are set to square off, many want the media to raise the bar of expectations for Trump. The language of politics is no stranger to sports metaphors, but it’s easy to forget that these six terms, near clichés at this point in the campaign, started out as sporting or gaming expressions:

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Now that’ll win a high-stakes showdown. “Poker hand,” by Steve Gray, courtesy of freeimages.com.

1. Run-up

The original run-up took place in greyhound racing, specifically coursing, where the dogs chase hares. The portion of the race up to the first “turn” or “wrench” of the hare, technical terms in the sport, was called the run-up. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites this in 1834. Runner-up is also a racing term, referring since the 1840s to a dog that came in second place in the final course of a race. Runner-up was soon after extended to other competitions.

2. High-stakes

Since at least the 1920s, the adjective high-stakes concerned gambling, especially a poker game with stakes that were high, or “large.” This use of high dates backs to the 1600s, and characterized gambling stakes (e.g., the stakes were high) since the 1700s. The origin of stake, as something wagered, is unknown, though many have tried to root it in a stake, a “post” on which bettors placed their wager in the form of clothing, jewelry, or the like.

3. Showdown

Showdown took its etymological seat at the poker table in the 1890s: when players show their cards, after all the betting is over, by laying them down face up to see who has the best hand. This showdown became a metaphor for other confrontations by the early 1900s.

4. Dead heat

When horses cross the finish line at the exact same time, often after running neck and neck, they end in a dead heat. Horse racing has been using this term since 1796, according to the OED’s records. Dead, here, is “absolute” or “downright,” a sense reaching back the 1600s and owing to the utter finality of death. A heat is a single race, also dating to the 1600s and presumably named for the burst of exertion therein involved. 

5. Square off

Boxers square off when they take their fighting stances. The OED attests this American usage in 1838. Slightly earlier variants include square at, square up, or simply square. In such a posture, the limbs assume the rough outline of a square, a word which has also described a “strong” or “solid” body since the 1400s.

6. Raise the bar

In the high jump, athletes compete to clear ever higher levels of a horizontal bar. This bar, used in reference to the sport since the mid 1800s, could be raised or lowered, which became an effective metaphor for setting different levels of expectations by the 1970s.

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What is the “pall” pallbearers bear?

Muhammad Ali will be laid to rest in his hometown, Louisville, Ky., today. The distinguished boxer will have some distinguished pallbearers for his memorial processional, including actor Will Smith alongside Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson, fellow champions in the ring. But what is this pall that they will be bearing?

Pallbearer

Today, pallbearers carry the coffin at a funeral. But historically, they held the four corners of a pall, or the cloth spread over the coffin. This tradition originated in the Middle Ages, apparently, though the custom of covering the dead is ancient. According to some accounts, pallbearers held the pall in place as other men or a vehicle bore the casket to a church. Others indicate pallbearers carried the pall into a church and ceremonially touched or held it during a service.

The funeral pall has been draping the English language since the 1400s but the word is documented in Old English as pæll. This pall originally referred to a rich cloth, often purple, that robed high-ranking persons or covered a church altar, where they are still in use today.

Old English derives its pæll from the Latin pallium, a “covering” or “cloak.” In Ancient Rome, pallia, to use the Latin plural, first referred to the cloaks worn by Greek philosophers, later by Christians who eschewed the native toga. Latin’s pallium is related to palla, a “robe,” “cloak,” or “mantle,” but the ultimate origin is obscure.

By the 1500s, we see pall transferred from rich robes and altar cloths to general coverings. By the 1700s, the cloth’s associations with funerals cast a pall of darkness and gloominess over the word. Pale, pallor, and appalled are unrelated; these derive from the Latin pallēre, “to be pale,” whose Indo-European root means, oddly enough, “dark-colored.”

The Oxford English Dictionary specifically attests pallbearer by 1707, while the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology notes the word shifted to its current sense of coffin-bearing by the early 1900s.

Muhammad Ali’s passing definitely casts its pall, but his legacy will need no bearer: It stands on it own, like a champion raising his gloves in victory.

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“Boxer”: A true original

Last week, the world lost Muhammad Ali. In and outside the ring, he lived up to his larger-than-life nickname: The Greatest. As we remember his life and legacy, let’s have a few rounds with the etymology of the sport he championed: boxing.

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There’s a present inside. Image by Jean Scheijen.

Box

The Oxford English Dictionary first records boxing – “the action of fighting with the fists” – surprisingly late for a sport well-documented in antiquity. The dictionary cites an essay in Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s Spectator in 1711 which urges regular physical exercise alongside mental exertion. To that end, the writer extols a form of classical, calisthenic shadow-boxing, or sciamachy, involving weighted sticks: “This opens the chest, exercises the limbs, and gives a man all the pleasures of boxing, without the blows.”

Boxing was popular – and deadly – in ancient Rome, but the sport died out after the fall of the empire. Some look to the rise of Christianity, others sword-based combat, as possible explanations. A bout isn’t recorded in England until 1681 when a lord matched up his butler and his butcher, apparently, in a bare-knuckle fight. (The butcher is said to have won.) English Prizefighter James Figg helped to popularize the sport in the early 1700s, his pupil Jack Broughton soon after helped to codify it.

Now, The Spectator’s “blows” is the operative word if we referee boxing’s origins. Boxing, as you can imagine, takes it corner from box, a verb first meaning “to strike” or “beat” by the early 16th century (and since narrowed to its sporting sense). This box is from an earlier noun, a “buffet,”  “cuff,” or “blow,” found as early as 1300 and now surviving largely in a box on the ears.

Scholars see in English’s box some tempting etymological contenders: the Middle Dutch boke, Middle German buc, and Danish bask all mean a “blow.” But these comparisons are no knockouts. Most scholars conclude box is probably a native English word that imitates the sound of a punch. Walter Skeat sees box as a variant of pash, another echoic term for a combat “blow.”

Some philologists suggest box may be a playful extension of Christmas box, a container that once collected tips for servants and apprentices. In one early iteration of the custom, this box was an earthenware vessel broken open around the holiday, its contents then shared among the workers. (We can imagine a young employee asking a workmate, “Want a present?” But his fellow is only rewarded with a box on the arm. “There’s no prize if you don’t smash open the box!”) On the first weekday after Christmas, various workers received a Christmas box on this so-called Boxing Day.

The receptacle box takes its name from the box tree, as early containers were fashioned from its wood. The name of the dog breed, originating in Germany, nods to the historically pugnacious temperament of a boxer, whose shorts are remembered in the loose-fitting underwear, boxer shorts. In 1900, a Chinese secret society attempted an uprising against foreigners. English roughly, if not erroneously, rendered the group’s Chinese name as “the Righteous Harmony Fists,” or boxers, hence the Boxer Rebellion.

If boxing so originates as English onomatopoeia, it’s an apt etymology for Muhammad Ali: He was a true original, who we will remember for winning with his words as much as with his fists.

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Why do we “clinch” a nomination?

And then there was one. Ted Cruz and John Kasich have ended their presidential campaigns after Donald Trump trounced them in the Indiana primary. Just over 200 delegates shy of securing it outright, Trump has virtually clinched the Republican party’s nomination for president. But why do we say that: to clinch a nomination?

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A clinched nail. Image used with permission from The English Woodworker

Clinch

Outside of political contests, we often use clinch in sports. Leicester City, for example, recently clinched the Premier League championship. Stateside, a team clinches a spot in the playoffs. In these contexts, clinch means “to make certain.” But as early as the 16th century, we didn’t clinch wins: we clinched nails.

After hammering a nail through a plank, a worker bends back the point to fasten it securely in the wood. This is called clinching, and lends itself easily to metaphor. By the early 1700s, the Oxford English Dictionary evidences clinch as a way to express “to settle decisively” – to wrap it up, drive it home, firm and final, like a clinched nail.

After exchanging blows, boxers clinch when they grapple up close, clasping their gloves. This pugilistic clinch is in use by the mid-1800s. We once clinched our hands and fingers, too, but today, we largely say we clench our fists (and teeth, jaws, and butts). Clinch, word historians note, is actually a variant of this clench. The latter probably evolved out of cling, which is found in Old English; you can see how cling’s sense of “adherence” anticipates the “interlocking” clench. Together, this cluster of clinch, clench, and cling ultimately derive from a Germanic base, with cognates widespread in the language family.

Except for builders, we don’t really associate clinch with nails today. But Donald Trump’s all-but-guaranteed clinching of the nomination does evoke nails for many in the Republican party: Will Donald Trump, #NeverTrump-ers fear, clinch the nails into the coffin of the GOP as we know it?

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