24: The Language of Football

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Football is often said to be a universal language. If you can play it, you can communicate with anyone around the world. But as the sport has embedded itself into cultures, so too has the way we write about it and talk about it. 

From match reports and opinion pieces to radio broadcasts and fan discussions, the words and phrases we use continue to evolve, in order to articulate what we see unfolding in front of us. Football has established a vernacular all of its own.

This episode is a special collaboration with The Expressionists podcast. 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

James: I'm James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the human connection behind the beautiful game.

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James: Football is often said to be a universal language. If you can play it, you can communicate with anyone around the world. But as the sport has embedded itself into cultures, so too has the way we write about it and talk about it.

From match reports and opinion pieces to radio broadcasts and fan discussions, the words and phrases we use continue to evolve, in order to articulate what we see unfolding in front of us. Football has established a vernacular all of its own.

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James: To help me explore the language of football, I decided to bring in the experts, who know a thing or two about words and phrases...

Olivia: Hello, I’m Olivia Rosenman.

Helen: And I’m Helen Rydstrand.

Olivia: And we are The Expressionists.

James: The Expressionists is a podcast that explores how idioms connect us with the past and to each other.

Adam is here too.

Adam: My name’s Adam Hurrey and I’m the author of Football Cliches and I run the Twitter account, also called Football Cliches.

James: We’ll come back to Adam in a moment. But first, one of the earliest examples of where football and language intersect is in the origin of the sport itself. Olivia actually had a question for me about this.

Olivia: James, I have no idea of the origin of the word “soccer”. Where does it come from?

James: Sure. So the origins are kind of - a little bit obscure and people believe that the word “soccer” is an Americanisation and football fans outside of the United States are known to scoff at the term. But in actual fact, in originated in England, which is of course the home of football.

Now obviously there are many variants of football, including Rugby football, American football and Association football. But “soccer” is derived directly from the word “Association” and it originated out of universities like Oxford and Cambridge, were early versions of football were being played.

And within this culture, adding “err” to the end of words was kind of a common colloquialism. So Rugy Football became “rugger” and Association Football became “soccer”. So there you go, it’s an English invention, it’s essentially a nickname and you shouldn’t feel bad about using it. It’s become more of an American thing but its roots are certainly in the UK.

Olivia: I feel like in Australia, we’re pretty firmly in the “soccer” camp though, right?

James: For the most part, yes. But in recent times that has kind of shifted a little bit.

Helen: It is the footy-est of the football’s as well.

Olivia: I know, totally. I kind of feel like all those other ones should be called “foot and hand ball” or something.

James: Regular listeners to this show will know that I lean more towards “football”, but I often use it interchangeably with “soccer”. As with many areas of language, it all comes down to context.

And naturally, language changes over time. This is particularly evident when it comes to idioms. For example, “purple patch”. Here’s Helen...

Helen: A little while ago I had a disagreement with my partner about what the phrase “purple patch” even means. He insisted that it referred to a really good streak of success for a football team or player. But I knew that he was wrong.

Along with the variants “purple passage” and “purple prose”, it actually means ‘a random, ornate, overly poetic passage within a planer prose text.’

The Oxford English Dictionary has “purple patch” in modern English in around 1704. But apparently it is in fact modelled on a Latin term “purpureus pannus”, appearing in Horace's Ars Poetica - that’s The Art of Poetry - around 19 BCE.

Olivia: Sounds like this isn’t actually even about football at all.

Helen: Yeah, so that is what I started to think and I would have been pretty happy to be able to report back to my partner that he was incorrect. But I wanted to find out why he might have thought it was a football-related phrase. So I did some trawlling through Twitter and various sports and news publications to see if it was especially connected to soccer - and it, I think it is - though it does get used elsewhere as well.

When I went to Twitter, in the 20 most recent Tweets to use the phrase “purple patch”, twelve of them were about soccer, three were about other sports and five were about other random stuff entirely, including just one referencing Horace's Ars Poetica.

In most shorter, quick reference dictionaries, I found the first definition is in fact the ‘run of success’ one, with a note that it is British slang. So that implies, I think, that this is the more common meaning these days.

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Adam: I’ve always thought of the language of football as its own particular bubble within the language that we all use in everyday life.

James: Again, Adam Hurrey.

Adam: And what football does is, it steals a lot of words and phrases from the outside world, which is as you’d expect, because football, you know, in the grand scheme of things is quite a new concept. It’s only, what, maybe about 150 years old. And what I’ve found, is that it is quite one-way traffic. Whilst football takes a lot of stuff, linguistically from the outside world, it doesn’t give a lot back.

James: One of the few example though, is one I’ve actually mentioned on this show before - “back to square one” - with its suspected origins in early radio broadcasts of football matches.

Adam: Yeah, that’s an interesting one. I first read that theory a while ago and that’s kind of since, been slightly debunked as well, so I don’t really know who to believe.

James: Come on, Adam.

Adam: But it does seem plausible.

James: Yes, it does.

James: There’s speculation that it could have come from the children’s game hopscotch or the classic board game snakes and ladders. But you know, personally being a football fan, I like its football origin story.

So in 1927, broadcasting football matches on the radio was brand new and it was first started by the BBC. And because it was so new, they were just learning how to communicate what was actually happening in a match effectively. So the magazine Radio Times actually published a diagram of a football pitch where the field of play was divided into squares or a grid, each with a corresponding number.

So as the commentator was calling out the play, someone else would continuously call out the number that corresponded to the area of the pitch where the area was unfolding. And obviously in football you’re trying to move the ball up the pitch from your own defensive half towards the opposition half to score. So what I’m guessing is, the goalkeeper’s square in this grid was number one, so when the team was forced to, you know, pass back to the goalkeeper, commentators would often say something like “back to square one”.

Helen: I never would have guessed that that, like, the specific nature of that history is really cool. That like it comes out of the BBC in this like, tiny moment in time.

Olivia: Yeah, and it's such a great visual origin. I mean you can just totally visualise how that works.

James: I think as well, the fact that it was used in broadcasting is probably a better case than say, hopscotch or snakes and ladders. In that it became, you know, more generalised and more popular because it was being broadcast and people were hearing it so often. To me, it makes sense that this is very much a football phrase.

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James: Next up, another of my favourite phrases, and this one is more exclusive to the football world: a cultured left foot.

James: So it’s well known that left-handed and left-footed players make up a much smaller percentage of the population around the world, right? So this is a term given that’s given to highly skilled and technically gifted left-footed players. The idea being that because they’re rarer, they have more of a - kind of a mystical status within the game. Naturally, there’s just a much smaller player pool to pick from. So, you’ll occasionally hear the phrase spoken by commentators and used by football writers - yeah, it’s an interesting one but definitely one I enjoy.

Olivia: As one of those rare gems, a left-handed person, I love it. I might just make my own adaptation and start referring to my cultured left hand.

James: Haha!

James: You know, I haven’t actually been able to find out where it originated. Do you know the answer to that?

Adam: No, not really. Perhaps it doesn’t have a specific origin. It’s just simply a fascination - an understandable fascination with people who are experts on their left side. Because, you know, they are by definition something of a minority. So when you’re watching football, for most people - thankfully I’m two-footed so I don’t have this issue - but some people, when they’re watching football, perhaps if you see an outrageously good goal with the left foot, there’s is that detachment. You’re watching it and you can’t really understand how they’ve done it because the person watching can’t use their left foot to anywhere near the same extent as their right. So perhaps it’s born out of a fascination for left-sided expertise.

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James: The majority of phrases around the game enter the realm of the football cliche, which is of course, Adam’s particular area of expertise.

Adam: I have had a strange, long obsession with the language of football and I think I’ve finally gotten to the bottom of it, after all these years.

When it comes to cliches - which are, by definition are things which have to have been repeated quite a lot. Whether they are true or not have to have been repeated over time to the point where they become almost unspeakable. You know, everyone understands what they mean, you probably don’t even need to say them. So cliche, by very definition have to have a kind of gestation period. They can’t really be invented particularly quickly, they need time to bed in.

Having said that, perhaps the situation we find ourselves with football coverage now where it is relentless. And then you throw in social media and things like that, perhaps certain phrases and words don’t need that long to embed themselves. To take a kind of medium term example, if we take parking the bus, which has become quite a disparaging term, it’s perhaps become quite overused, it’s not a hugely technical term or a tactical term. It was first uttered by Jose Mourinho back in 2004. So if you take sort of 13 years, which isn’t a huge amount of time for a football phrase to establish itself, it’s become ubiquitous, it’s come to mean any team that’s attempted to defend their way to a decent result that they would overwise get if they played more openly.

So while the kind of evolution of football language is starting to accelerate, it still takes a good 5 to 10 years for a phrase to really permeate across the football landscape. So a phrase like that is a good example of how long it does take.

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Adam: I’m very interested in the act of scoring a goal and what I noticed when I wrote the book about three years ago, I counted about 73 verbs or ways of describing a goal being scored. Now I’ll give you a few of them just to give you a flavour of how these things kind of vary very slightly. So you’ve got fired, you’ve got drilled, rifled, thundered, hammered, powered, slammed, rammed, blasted etc.

So these words for scoring goals - it’s very important because obviously it’s the most fundamental act in football and yet these very, very slightly different words all have very specific meanings for a very certain set of circumstances.

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James: Reading your book, some of the phrases stick out to me as having little interesting stories around them and how they came to be and I know a lot of that is still kind of up in the air and not sorta clear. But something like at sixes and sevens, sitter - I think you mention had some kind of hunting origin, gilt-edged and notched and these kind of little terms that you don’t really hear anywhere else apart from football.

Adam: One of the most interesting aspects of the language of football is where football has stolen phrases from the wider world and used it for its own intent. But then those phrases, outside football have become kind of redundant.

They essentially become football phrases but no one really knows where they came from. So a couple of the examples that you picked up on there - so at sixes and sevens - which is such a perfect example because most people don’t know where it came from. They know exactly what it means - that is, a defence that’s all over the place - or all at sea, perhaps, as some people say.

So everyone knows what at sixes and sevens means but it’s almost become utterly unimportant where it came. But even then, the origin is quite disputed. Supposedly it’s kind of a dice game from the 14th century. Or it could mean some long running dispute between companies in London in the 15 century. It’s all very ridiculous but this is how these phrases come along.

James: Well, how have you seen the language of football evolve from kind of the very early days, up until the point today where we have this media saturation?

Adam: Where the language of football has evolved is when it comes to opinion peices and perhaps sort of on live commentary, where there’s a lot more words involved, there’s a lot more speaking because everything has to be so much more exciting now. So in terms of how language has changed, you get a lot more dynamism in love football commentary than you ever get in newspaper reporting.

James: We haven’t touched on other languages - I mean I don’t speak any other languages so I can’t really speak to that. But you know, I know that there are many other phrases and cliches that exist in other languages around football and they’re probably going through a lot of the same issues within other cultures.

Adam: Yeah, I mean other languages have their own way of approaching it. Brazilain Portuguese is much more poetic - even more poetic than English language when it comes to football and we have some lovely phrases of our own. But they have some hilarious ones. The top corner of the goal, which we would perhaps refer to as the postage stamp, in Brazil it’s known as “where the owl sleeps”.

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James: The football world may be constantly changing, but for all its quirks and murky history, language is one aspect of the games culture we can always rely on to develop organically.

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James: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson.

And this episode was a collaboration with The Expressionists podcast. A big thanks to Olivia and Helen and if you’re eager for more on idioms and language go and subscribe in your preferred podcast app - or check out their website, expressionists.audio

Many thanks also to Adam Hurrey for contributing. You should definitley pick up a copy of his book Football Cliches. His Twitter account, of the same name, is also a must follow for some fun takes on the lighter side of football.

And while you're there, which is your favourite football cliche? Let me know, @JamesRParkinson.

Music featured in this episode comes from Podington Bear under Creative Commons.

And as always, your ratings, reviews and shares are much appreciated. Go and tell a friend about the show, grab their phone and make them subscribe.

Thank you for listening. And for more from the show, check out the website, byassociation.audio where we always to love the game.

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