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In America the sports idiom is a popular and effective way of getting your point figuratively across without having to literally say what you mean. These everyday euphemisms are useful language tools and are often deployed without knowledge of the origin or true sporting definition. Here’s a look at some of the most common.
1. Taking a rain check
This idiom is particularly useful when you want to get out of having to socialize with somebody who has bad breath or body odor. “Hey, I’ll take a rain check on that drink, but let’s get together soon.” The phrase originated in the 19th century when baseball clubs noticed dwindling attendances during the winter months. The idea was that fair-weather fans could leave up to a certain point in a game if the weather turned bad and then reuse their ticket stub as a “rain check” to come back another day.
2. Monday morning quarterback
There’s a Monday morning quarterback in all of our lives. It’s that annoying guy in the office who stands by the water cooler and offers critical advice from a position of hindsight. “You left your organic apples on your desk over the weekend? You should have put them in the fridge, Colin. They wouldn’t have spoiled in there.” The expression was first recorded in 1932 and alludes to football fans who recount the previous day’s game specifying the plays they would’ve made had they been the quarterback.
3. Baseball bases to describe success with the opposite sex
Primarily used by teenagers, the bases system defines the success (or lack thereof depending on your standards) with a make-out partner. So where a British youth might say, “Yeah, I snogged her, innit!” a young American would offer the more metaphorical, “I got to first base. Sweet!” and celebratory high-fives would follow.
4. Pass the buck
During the 19th century, the game of poker was one of the most popular pastimes in the American Wild West. To signify which player was dealing the round, a knife known as a buckhorn was placed on the table in front of them. On occasion it was worth avoiding the role of dealer, as it meant you had to place the first bet. A player could opt out of dealing by “passing the buck” to the next player and thereby avoiding responsibility. The knife was later replaced by a silver dollar, which is where the slang term “buck” for a U.S. dollar comes from.
5. Curveballs and hardballs
In the U.K., if one is dealt an unexpected and/or unpleasant surprise, one might say to the bugger responsible, “Hey! That’s not cricket, old boy!” In the U.S., on the other hand, the victim would say something more along the lines of, “Dude, you totally threw me a curveball.”
Playing hardball is the act of getting tough with someone in order to achieve the desired outcome. “Hey Colin! I need you to get the price down on the Zielinski account. Play hardball with them if you have to buddy.” The “hard” part refers to the game of baseball as opposed to the more gentle game of softball; implying that things have gotten very, very serious indeed.
6. Saved by the bell
This one’s up for debate. The phrase is most commonly associated with boxing (for obvious reasons) and appears to have been coined by American sports journalists sometime in the latter half of the 19th century. However, a popular alternative explanation dates the euphemism from a couple of hundred years earlier. The story goes that the fear of being inadvertently buried alive was so commonplace in the 17th century that coffins were fitted out with bells that could be tolled by the mistaken dead. On hearing the bells, those above ground could then dig their friends back up and apologize for the misunderstanding. A third and rather more charming account originates from Victorian era London. One of the Queen’s guards was accused of falling asleep while on night duty. The guard denied the charge and said he could prove his innocence because he recalled how he found it strange that Big Ben chimed 13 times at midnight instead of 12. The clock’s mechanism was checked and a cog was discovered to be out of line, meaning that Ben was indeed chiming 13 times at midnight. The charges were dropped and the guard was freed—literally “saved by the bell.”
7. Hail Mary pass
The Hail Mary pass is a throw made in desperation during the final moments of an American football game that carries a slim chance of success. It has crept into the everyday vernacular as a way of describing something as a long shot (yet another sporty idiom!). The root of the phrase can be traced back to the Notre Dame football team of 1922 who offered a Hail Mary prayer before scoring each of their touchdowns in a game against Georgia Tech. The phrase wasn’t born as an idiom until Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Roger Staubach described his game-winning pass in the dying seconds of a 1975 play-off game against the Minnesota Vikings as a “Hail Mary pass; a very, very lucky play.”
8. Touch base and other baseball idioms
There are more baseball idioms in American English than any other sport by far. The majority of them are used by important business people who have important business meetings and say important business things like, “Can you touch base with the Epstein Group and get a ballpark figure? I need you to step up to the plate on this one because if we hit this out of the park it could be a real game changer. We’re in the big leagues now, Colin.”
What’s your favorite sporting idiom?