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The Language of Sport - an essay

In sport you either know the language or you don't - you're either an insider or an outsider. Brian’s article about the Treble, showed all the enthusiasm of the true fan. It also displayed linguistic expressions particular to the language of sport, or more precisely in this instance, football. Many of these expressions are familiar to football fans through the medium of newspaper reporting, especially the tabloids. Thus we have diminutive, familiar forms for the names of clubs, like ‘Spurs’, (Becoming a fan), or the ‘Reds’, (Staying a fan). In the same sections we hear about goals being ‘traded’ (each side scoring one each), and how at the end ‘honours were even’ (the scores were the same). Brian would not use the same expressions if he were talking to someone about the game. They are part of a written, journalistic code.

‘The Boy Done Good’

In fact football reports rarely provide only news; many people who read the sports pages already know the result, and may even have seen the game live on television. This helps to explain some of the vivid language used in newspaper reporting, as its function is not just to give the score. Reports also have to give opinions and explanations, and engage the reader on an emotional level. And as we have seen elsewhere in this edition, some newspapers sell copies by being sensationalist. There is also an obsession with after-match quotes from players or managers; another ‘angle’ on the game has to be found. Of course these are not always as coherent and useable as journalists would like. Mihir Bose, a football journalist with ‘The Times’, talked about how he and fellow journalists would get together after the post-match conference to agree on the most acceptable and reportable version of the manager’s stream of consciousness and non-sequiturs (Bose, 1996). In other cases it is those very memorable phrases from post-match interviews, (‘the boy done good’; ‘we wus robbed’; ‘it was a game of two halves’; ‘I’m over the moon’), which are part of an affectionate football folk-lore and language, gently parodied in places like the satirical magazine Private Eye. Even the articulate are prone to the linguistic faux pas: when the England player Tony Adams was asked before the England/Poland European Football Championship game in September 1999 what the atmosphere in the Legia Warsaw stadium would be like, he replied, ‘Intense – I think the Polish crowd will be very compassionate’(Guardian, Thursday 9 September, 1999).

‘Heart for the Battle’

Both the reports in English newspapers after the Poland/England game of 8 September 1999, and Brian’s report of the Manchester United /Bayern Munich game of 26 May 1999, illustrate a common metaphor used in football reporting, that of war.

Brian draws on the reputation of German football teams to describe the German's defence (itself a military term), as 'well-drilled’, and a ' solid rearguard’, which withstands the attempts of Manchester United to ‘attack’ and 'probe' its ranks. The sense of (albeit organised) chaos is compounded by the way the United fans are described as 'hordes', while the Manchester goalkeeper advances near the end hoping to ' cause havoc'. It is somehow fitting that it is the United player with the nickname 'the Baby-Faced Assassin’, who supplies the final coup de grace.

Such military language was also reflected in the reports after the Poland/England game on 8 September. A sample of quotes from just one of the tabloids, The Mirror, from Thursday 9 September illustrates this. The ‘old enemy’ Poland, (remembering Tomaszewski’s heroics 26 years earlier), had come back to haunt England's qualifying 'campaign', and had thwarted Alan Shearer and his ‘troops’. During the first half hour of the game England had been ‘under siege’ and Martin Keown had received a yellow card for ‘taking out’ Miros³aw Trzeciak. Scholes, who in the earlier game that year at Wembley had ‘plundered’ a hat trick, was now kept subdued. Pearce, however, was magnificent; he ‘always has heart for the battle’.

We should not be surprised that the language used to describe matches between countries should display elements of nationalism or even jingoism. Ryszard Kapuœciñski has written about two South American countries going to war over the result of a soccer match, and George Orwell saw sport as ‘an unfailing cause of ill will’. Both the part played by sport in the politics of nations, and the way in which media language can be used to inflame national tensions, are examined in other parts of this issue.

‘The Ice-Cool Swede’

National stereotypes are often portrayed in sporting language. We have already seen how German teams, like Bayern Munich, are described as being ‘machine-like’ and efficient, if sometimes lacking in flair. Sporting commentary, written or spoken, abounds with players and teams being described as reflections of perceived national characteristic: Borg and Enqvist, ice-cool Swedish Tennis players; brilliant but volatile Latin American football teams; graceful and ethereal Russian figure skaters (or not so ethereal Russian shot-putters – it’s possible to have more than one national characteristic); the dark, brooding, unpredictable French footballer Eric Cantonna; and the plucky, brave Englishman, like Stuart Pearce above, or George Mallory in another of our articles, who always have a heart for the battle, if not for the winner’s rostrum.

‘The Body’

The Language of sport can be employed in more insidious ways. There is often an (unconscious) agenda in the media representation of women which reinforces gender roles and sexist attitudes. At its most blatant it can be seen through the constant references to women athletes’ physical attractiveness, as with the case of the French tennis player Mary Pierce who is dubbed by some (male) journalists as ‘The Body’. Players like her are said to ‘glide’ across court, their shots and their movements both described in graceful language. This is clearly contrasted by the description of the appearance and performances of players like Arantxa Sanchez Vicario or Monica Seles, who ‘grind down’ opponents or ‘scamper’ across court.

Less obvious is the way that descriptions of woman athletes (unlike their male equivalents) are usually accompanied by reference to their marital status, children, and homes. The whole issue of sport reinforcing gender roles is dealt with in further detail elsewhere. (See:Sport and Gender)

‘It’s not cricket’

The relationship between sport and metaphor is two-way; not only are many sporting terms metaphorical in origin, drawing on other fields of activity for their semantic connection (as with the military images mentioned above), but sport acts as a source of metaphors too. This is best seen in the example of cricket, which for a long time was viewed as representing essential English characteristics such as fair play, team spirit, and an acceptance of victory or defeat with equal grace. As Vita Sackville-West, the close friend of Virginia Woolf, wrote in 1947, ‘the Englishman is seen at his best the moment that another man starts throwing a ball at him’ (in1995: 167). The way in which the game of cricket is viewed as a metaphor for life is reflected in the use of such expressions as ‘it’s not cricket’ (it’s not fair), ‘to be on a sticky wicket’ (to be in a difficult situation), and ‘off one’s own bat’ (without help from anyone else). Of course language evolves and changes, and cricketing metaphors and images are not as common nowadays as they were thirty years ago (Sporting Idioms, gives a fuller range of others in popular use).

However it is still the case that cricket provides a romantic, rural ideal for some people, as seen in former Prime Minister John Major’s definition of Britishness as ‘long shadows on county cricket grounds’. Such an image is restricted; it has its roots in the past, and is mainly applicable to England and not the rest of the United Kingdom. This does not prevent it surviving, both through language and as a powerful symbol.

‘Just Write About It’

For a long time sporting journalism, or indeed any writing about sport, was not taken very seriously in Britain. There were notable exceptions to this, such as C.L.R. James and Neville Cardus on cricket (the latter responsible for many of those aesthetic and romantic connotations which the sport retains), J. B. Priestley in essays and fiction, and more recently the likes of Hugh McIlvanney and Eamon Dunphy on football. Part of the reason for this may have been the class associations which have clung to certain sports, and which are dealt with elsewhere (See Sport and the Working Classes and Victorian and Edwardian Sporting Values). This would explain why in America there is a much stronger tradition of serious writing about sport, where Joyce Carol Oates and Norman Mailer can produce riveting pieces on boxing, and Stephen Jay Gould, a world-renowned palaeontologist, regularly writes on baseball for ‘The New York Review of Books’. Richard Ford even produced a serious contender for ‘The Great American Novel’ in ‘The Sportswriter’.

However, in recent years in Britain there has been a notable increase in both the quantity and quality of sportswriting appearing in daily papers, Sunday broadsheets, glossy magazines, and bookshops (with a special chain of bookstores, ‘Sportspages’, now catering for the literate fan). Much of the increased interest initially came from football; not only did the sport become very fashionable in the past ten years, but fanzines also offered a fresh perspective on the game. These magazines, produced by and for fans, can be irreverent, controversial, offensive, and anti-establishment, attacking the growing commercialisation of the game, and defending the rights of the ‘real’ fan. They are printed in opposition to official club magazines, and although the quality of the production and the writing is varied, they have shaken up football writing. Every club will have at least one fanzine, and the big clubs several. What they helped to do was show that ‘fanatical’ devotion to a soccer team was not synonymous with illiteracy, racism, and hooliganism. This message was reinforced by the book and film success of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, chronicling his love affair with Arsenal Football Club. Nowadays football is not the only sport being written about, and sport attracts print from Prime Ministers to Poet Laureates.

Being There and Taking Part

Interestingly, in a recent collection of sportswriting, jointly edited by Nick Hornby, (1996: 4/5), the editors eschewed the view that sport ‘stands as a metaphor for real life…as if sport has something to tell us about life in the same way as art does’. The very appeal and magic of sport, they claim, is that ‘it is indivisible for the rest of life…it has all of life’s business in it and no contains as much pleasure, pain, irony, tragedy and comedy as a writer will ever need’. Perhaps that is why it is so powerful, acting on memory through taking part and being there. At the end of Brian’s description of the Treble, he wonders whether the players realise that ‘they had fulfilled the dreams of so many avid fans’, and goes on to say that ‘I will be able to say to my grandchildren those immortal words – I was there!’ The most crucial relationship between language and sport, then, may well turn out to be the way in which through language we can express some of those emotions. There are clear echoes of Brian’s feelings in the way in which the great American writer, Don DeLillo, describes the reactions of a character, Russ, to a memorable climax to the baseball World Series in the 1950’s (1997; 60):

‘Isn’t it possible that this mid-century moment enters the skin more lastingly than the vast shaping strategies of eminent leaders, generals steely in their sunglasses - the mapped visions that pierce our dreams? This is the thing that will pulse in his brain come old age and double vision and dizzy spells - the surge sensation, the leap of people already standing, that bolt of noise and joy when the ball went in. This is the people’s history and it has flesh and breadth that quicken to the force of this old safe game of ours. And fans at the Polo Grounds today will be able to tell their grandchildren - they’ll be the gassy old men leaning into the next century and trying to convince anyone willing to listen, pressing in with medicine breath, that they were here when it happened.’


  • Beard, A., The Language of Sport, Routledge, 1998
  • Bose, M., The Sporting Alien-English Sport’s Lost Camelot, Mainstream, 1996
  • Coleman, N. & Hornby, N. (eds.), The Picador Book of Sportswriting, Picador, 1996
  • DeLillo, D., Underworld, Picador, 1997
  • Giles, J. & Middleton, T., (eds.) Writing Englishness 1900-1950, Routledge, 1995
  • Kelly, S. (ed.) A Game of Two Halves, Hamlyn, 1997
  • The Guardian Europe, 9 September 1999
  • The Mirror, 9 September, 1999

Reflection and Reaction

How is sport reported in Poland? Are there any recurrent images or metaphors? What is your reaction to this essay? Send us your views and opinions and we will respond to them in the next issue.

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