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The language of sport

The language of sport

Every sport boasts its own unique terminology. This is generally incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Only golf enthusiasts would understand the need to avoid a double bogey!

It’s always an interesting exercise to listen to a radio commentary of a sport you are not familiar with. You quickly begin to question if you have an acceptable grasp of your own language!

But why do sports develop their own lexicons and why are English sporting lexicons more complex than most?

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Toffees, Panenkas and other gobbledygook

Words and phrases are often unique to an individual sport and are not utilised in any other context. Those watching the sport for the first time are inevitably flummoxed by all of the gobbledygook.

Logic would suggest that sporting vocabulary would have been unified by now, so that similar terms could be utilised across all sporting disciplines and possibly all languages. But the exact opposite has happened. Sports are continually evolving new words and phrases rather than simplifying proceedings.

Football English: The Toffee’s left back made a rash challenge in the area which resulted in a red card and a penalty. The baggies’ centre forward stepped up to take the penalty and his audacious Panenka sealed victory.

Normal English: Everton’s left-sided defender rashly tripped up an opposition player in the penalty area and was punished for this by being ordered off the field. The referee then awarded West Bromwich Albion a penalty kick at goal. Their most attack-minded player took the penalty kick and audaciously chipped the ball into the centre of the goal, after the goalkeeper had dived, to secure victory.

The language of sport

When you read these descriptions of the same incident, one good reason for preserving unique sporting terminology becomes clear. It takes much longer to explain an event when you can’t call on specific terminology.

Many football terms have been with us for a century or more. However, Panenka is a relatively new addition to the sport’s lexicon. It perfectly illustrates how unexpected events can sometimes require the invention of new terms. From time to time, a new rule is introduced or a player comes up with a novel trick for which there isn’t yet a specific word. As others will copy any new moves, these must-have names.

In 1976, Czech player Antonín Panenka shocked the football world when he took a penalty in the European Championship. Instead of smashing the ball high into the roof of the net or slotting it into the corner of the goal, he waited for the goalkeeper to dive and then gently chipped the ball down the middle. This type of penalty is now almost always referred to in English as a Panenka.

Perpetuated by those in the know

Unique terms are useful because they ensure that sporting action can be described accurately and concisely.

Normal English: Wow! The Brazilian star Neymar, wrapped his kicking leg around the back of his standing leg and then crossed the ball with it!

Football English: Wow! A rabona from Neymar!

Ricardo Infante was the first exponent of the rabona. He executed the move in a game between the Argentinian teams Estudiantes de la Plata and Rosario Central in 1948. The football magazine El Gráfico then featured the player on its front cover dressed as a schoolboy with the caption "El infante que se hizo la rabona". In Spanish, rabona means to play hooky (skive).

There’s more to sporting terminology than facilitating concise reporting. Psychologists will argue that the unique language of a sport is perpetuated because it enables those in the know to feel superior.

Sports fans enjoy the sense of being part of a special club. They like to use the language of the few rather than that of the many. Sporting language is a form of elitism.

Of course, it isn’t only football which has developed its own vocabulary. The language of golf is even more incomprehensible to a novice. In what other context would you talk about making birdies, albatrosses, eagles and condors, unless you were a bird watcher? T

Tennis fans will talk about moonballs and bagels while Baseball aficionados always enjoy reviewing a Merkle's Boner or a post-match Gatorade shower.

English referees

All languages feature unique sporting words and phrases. But English reigns supreme in one aspect of sporting terminology. Most languages boast only one word for the arbiter of a sporting event, regardless of which sport is being played. In English, there are many terms for sports officials.

Football is officiated by referees, tennis by umpires and line judges, American football by umpires, line judges, field judges and more.

It could be that there are more terms for sporting officials in English because most major sports originated in English speaking countries.

Each sport developed its own language which has only been partly adopted in other countries.

Where there are no equivalent words for any aspect of a sport, the English terms are often used.

Where there is an appropriate word available, this is usually adopted in place of the English.

For instance, in Italian, the word arbitro is used to describe both a football referee and a tennis umpire.

Touching base with sports terminology

Sometimes sporting words and phrases make their way into the mainstream. Most have evolved because the nuances of many sports have demanded new and specific vocabulary to describe the action, if only to avoid lengthy explanations. But it turns out that such specific language can be very useful in everyday life.

Most English speakers will understand that touching base means to briefly make contact with someone. The phrase has migrated from the world of Baseball into common usage. To give something your best shot, to be out of someone’s league and to hit someone below the belt are all sporting expressions which most people use and understand.

The language of sport

Sports evolve their own terminologies and these can seem strange or even incomprehensible to outsiders.

But many of the resulting words and phrases prove to be so apposite in a variety of contexts that they are just too useful to remain exclusive to the sporting world.

Who knows, one day, we may all be describing any audacious action as a Panenka!

OK, probably not!

James Myatt

4 min read

Dec 10, 2020



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