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Tackling the language of Super Bowl Sunday

Imagine with me for a moment. It is February 3, 2013. A Sunday. But not just any Sunday, oh no. It is Super Bowl Sunday. And this year, the party’s at your place—with all the excitement, stress, and post-game cleaning-up that hosting these parties entails.

So here you are, at home, ensconced by family and friends who—you muse only half-affectionately— have never been noisier or messier. Most have arranged themselves comfortably in a crescent around your television, each enjoying a decent view of its gargantuan screen; they alternate clapping with yells, chatting with laughter, beer-gulping with snack-munching and back again. Others are milling about in the kitchen, clanking dishes, conversing and laughing too; occasionally one peeps out—reminding you of a groundhog emerging cautiously from its den—to take a swig and a glance at the TV, venture a passing remark, retreat.

Your dog, meanwhile, has made himself scarce for the commotion; he is clearly no football aficionado. You sympathize, but still, there’s something about the Americana of it all…and your living room is filled with the very sounds of it: fast-paced, insistent advertisements for booze and cars; shrill whistles ringing out; marching bands blaring catchy tunes; cool observations from two unseen individuals; and, as if from very far away, cheers of encouragement, hollers of discouragement, coded yells of names and numbers, plastic smacking against plastic, bodies smacking against bodies, the droning of an audience sparking with excitement and unabashedly bellowing advice to players, coaches, referee—

You’re considering grabbing another plateful of those little bacon-wrapped hot dog things when suddenly: you sense the air, along with the chatter, escaping the room. All gazes fixate upon the screen, all heartbeats quicken—all watch the figure sprinting—sprinting—with mesmerizing athleticism and confidence—escaping from, no, leading the crowd—



Where does that word come from anyway, you ponder, as all around you salsa is spilt, sofas are leapt from, family and friends (unaware of your reverie) hug and yell and clap you on the back and yell some more. Huh. What a weird word. Or how about “referee”? Or even “Super Bowl”?? I can’t believe I’ve never thought about this before. (More spilling of dip; more unfazed cheers.) Gosh, I sure wish someone from the Oxford English Dictonary were here.



Here is a handy manual for all you Super Bowl fans (and otherwise curious parties) who have ever wondered where all those weird football words originate.


A very German-sounding word, no? It might make you think of Blitzen, Donner’s companion in a certain reindeer crew; however, we also see this word in blitzkrieg, familiar primarily due to World War II. Literally, blitz means lightning (for the record, Donner means thunder); appropriate, as a blitz in football is a lightning-quick play in which the defense rushes to prevent the quarterback from catching or successfully passing the ball. It can also be used as a verb—to attack (the passer) in a blitz.


As we all know, the sole purpose of bowls during these events is to hold delicious guacamole, chips, pretzels, and…people?

The use of the word ‘bowl’ in Super Bowl (as well as in the other Bowl games—the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, or Orange Bowl, for instance) can be traced to the Yale Bowl, a Connecticut football stadium shaped like a bowl which originally could “hold” about 70,000 spectators (which remains a very average capacity in American football, even today for the NFL). The word bowl itself is cognate with both Old Norse bolli and Old High German bolla and, according to its formation, means “something swollen, round or globular, such as  a vessel or seed-pod’; its Indo-European root, *bhel, means ‘to swell’.


Anyone with even a vague interest in sports has heard this word and knows, at least, that a foul has negative consequences during a game for the player, and team, committing it. But where does the word come from?

Well, here’s the real question: how did you last use, or read, the word ‘foul’ in non-sports related contexts? It was probably an adjective.

“Ugh, this kombucha is foul.”

“Leave her alone—she’s in a foul mood.”

This sense of foul (offensive to the senses, unpleasant) is where our sports-related noun originates: It can be traced back to a Germanic verb meaning “to rot”, which only survives in the Old Norse participle fúinn “rotten”. It is descended from an Indo-European root *pu (say this out loud and you’ll find another connection!). This is the same root from which Latin pūs “pus” and Latin pūtēre “to stink” descend..

So if, from the safety and comfort of your living room, you tell the on-screen foul-committer “Dude! You stink!”, know that you are drawing the most lovely of etymological full circles.

Line of Scrimmage

This is the line on the football field parallel to the goal lines; its location changes typically depending on where the ball went out of play. The teams face each other from opposite sides of this line to begin the next play. Rugby fans may notice that scrimmage is similar to the word scrum, which is itself short for the even-more-similar scrummage; ultimately, both words can be traced to skirmish, originally a military term.

And, for all you Queen lovers out there (the band, not the monarch), ‘skirmish’ in Italian is scaramuccia, which is also the name of a character in 17th-and-18th-century Italian farce, who is known as scaramouch in English.

Will you do the fandango?


If you break the word down, the etymological origins of referee may not be so obscure: refer-ee. Perhaps this word trips us up because we pronounce ‘refer’ in referee differently than we pronounce ‘refer’ on its own? Or because ‘re-’ is a common prefix in itself (leaving you to ponder what on earth ‘feree’ might mean). Regardless, a referee has the same construction as words like addressee or even amputee; the -ee  suffix in each indicates that the person to whom the word is referring is “receiving” the verb at hand, here the verbs to address, to amputate, or to refer. In this sense, we do refer to, or consult, referees; they determine the outcome of an issue or dispute, though today, usually only in the sporting realm.


Touchdown has unsurprising origins: you “touch [the ball] down” to the ground to score points. However, though this rule of actually touching the ball down still exists in rugby (but is called a try), the ball doesn’t actually have to touch the ground in American football; instead, the player must only make it cross the invisible vertical plane above the goal line for his team to score, often leading to some fancy acrobatics for the players and tricky calls for the ref.

So, there you are: some weird football words explained. You’re welcome, but please don’t blame us if your pals banish you from the room for interrupting this year’s game with etymology lessons.

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