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The language of the beautiful game

The language of the beautiful game (just don’t mention the S-word)

If being reminded of how long it is since your country won the World Cup makes you sick as a parrot, you’re not alone – and you’d be using one of the many clichés with a long and glorious tradition in football, regardless of where your footballing loyalty lies.

Words of two halves

Some quintessentially footballing phrases have origins in unexpected places. It’s a fair bet that most people would say early doors, meaning ‘early on, at the beginning’, was originally a malapropism from the great manager Brian Clough, and indeed his is the first quotation the Oxford English Dictionary gives for its use as an adverb:

Early doors it was vital to me that they like me, too.
(Observer, 1979)

But Clough took the phrase from the world of theatre, where as a noun it meant an earlier, higher-priced period of admission:

Drury-Lane.—Sinbad. Every evening at 7.15…Early doors to unreserved parts 6d. extra.
(Times advert, 1883)

Similarly, it might be hard to see an obvious link between greengrocers and footballers, but football’s working-class origins are clear in phrases like onion bag (the goal net), first recorded in a football context in a 1979 “Roy of the Rovers” comic strip.

Journalists are constantly on the hunt for alternative ways to describe common footballing moves: a pass can be raking (low and fast), square (sideways), searching (wildly optimistic), or, borrowing a rugby term, a simple long punt (the wayward nature of which may have influenced the later use of punt as a wager or bet).

Hoofing it up to the big man

Football’s vocabulary often reflects the rather less glamorous way the game can be played at the lowest levels, or the grass roots, to use the standard term (also referred to depreciatively as Sunday League football). If your players are more beer and bacon sandwiches than Barcelona, you can always resort to hoofing the ball upfield – a verb which extended from animals’ to humans’ feet (“hoofing”, meaning walking, is recorded from 1652). From there, the tall, ungainly target man would hope to score from a header or, if he were feeling particularly acrobatic, a bicycle kick (an overhead volley, made famous by the Brazilian player Leonidas and first appearing in print in 1956). If all else fails, your players can always try route one. It has served many a team less skilled in the passing department very well.

Of course, too aggressive a style of play might get you booked or even given your marching orders by the ref. The imagery is fitting: to book someone comes from the practice of a policeman taking a suspect’s details (and both referees and policemen in the UK traditionally wear all black uniforms), and the parallel between a referee dismissing a player and a harsh sergeant-major ordering the troops is clear.

It’s not all United

From Hamilton Academicals to Tottenham Hotspur, football teams are famous for their unusual names, giving a glimpse of the clubs’ history and reputation. The famous early London team The Wanderers never had a home stadium of their own, and ‘wandered’ from venue to venue. This didn’t prevent them from winning the first ever FA Cup final in 1872. Sometimes a nickname is more opaque to the uninitiated. The ‘Latics’ can refer to two northern English teams, Oldham and Wigan, who share the ‘Athletic’ suffix in their names, and in Scotland, the Dumfries team Queen of the South (named after a speech by a local electoral candidate) are known as the ‘Doonhamers’ – from the Scots for “down home”, as expatriates working in distant places referred to the town.

The S-word

One last thing must, sadly, be covered: the long-standing confusion around the word football itself, and its rival, soccer. The former dates back to the late medieval period, although the game would be barely recognizable now:

The king forbiddes þt na man play at þe fut ball vnder þe payne of iiijd.
(Act of James I of Scotland, 1424)

The sense of “American football” dates from the late 19th century – the first unambiguous recorded  example is from 1881 – but “soccer” is a British term derived from the “-soc-” in Association football, in turn named after the Football Association (founded 1863). The use of the slang term “soccer” originally contrasted with rugby, which derived from football in the mid-19th century, at Rugby School, Warwickshire. It is now mainly used in the USA, where soccer has frequently been regarded as a children’s sport, hence the stereotype of the soccer mom. Although the game is becoming more and more popular, in part thanks to the efforts of David Beckham and other big names making the trip across the pond.

As this is a touchy point for many British fans, visitors to the UK are advised in the strongest possible terms to use ‘football’. You don’t want the beautiful game to turn ugly. This is a sport that we take very seriously and always have :

Foote balle, wherin is nothinge but beastly furie, and exstreme violence.
(Thomas Elyot, 1575)

Some people think football is a matter of life and death…I can assure them it is much more serious than that.
(Bill Shankly, Guardian, 24 Dec. 1973)

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