8 American Sports Idioms Brits Won’t Understand


Has anyone ever offered you a rain check? (LAM)

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? 

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Jon Langford

Jon Langford is a British expat living in NYC where he is often asked if he’s Australian on account of his Yorkshire accent. He is a freelance copywriter and journalist, and has been published in many sports and pop culture outlets including Major League Soccer, Time Out magazine, Inked magazine and Smitten by Britain. As bassist of alternative rock group The Chevin he has toured the world over, appearing on Conan, the Late Show with David Letterman and Last Call with Carson Daly. Follow him on Twitter at @Jon_LangfordNYC.
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  • JerryO

    Of course “passing the buck” led to another famous phrase, coined by President Truman, “The Buck Stops Here”


  • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

    It’s amazing how many sports terms are used in every day speech (on both sides of the Pond now I come to think about it.)

  • JerryO

    As an American having spent some time in the UK,

    (I was fascinated to watch the different sports like Bowls and especially Snooker on the telly) I find it odd to have heard some Americans use the word “Snookered” to describe being in a bad situation, when I’m sure they have no idea from where that term originates.

  • Irené Colthurst

    Isn’t the apologetic question “could I take a raincheck?” more common than the statement? Apologetic in the sense that the asker really *does* want the company of the other person, but has an unfortunately unavoidable prior commitment necessitating a reschedule?

    “Taking a raincheck” means a postponement, not getting out of the event altogether, at least not technically.

    • Empress

      It does mean postponing, since the person will honor the raincheck some other day.

  • Shaun

    I always assumed curve ball simply implied something unexpected rather than inherently unfair. If so, would the best equivalent be ‘to bowl a googly’ rather than ‘that’s not cricket…’

  • Kyuu Cumberdick

    As a fairly average Brit none of these expressions were new to me and I’d be surprised to find many Brits who hadn’t heard them either… American idioms and phrases are pretty wide-spread in the rest of the English-speaking world due to the abundance of TV shows and films, etc…

  • MRadclyffe

    You really ought to give the British more credit. We did invent the language after all.

  • Andi

    I’m American and I’ve only heard half of these…

  • Steven Barker

    Saved by the bell has an entirely, and none sports related origin. Before water was safe to drink people drank alcohol a lot, quiet often from pewter tankards. The mixture of pewter and alcohol in the blood stream in large enough quantities has a soporific effect that can resemble death. To be sure the person was dead their friends would lay them on the table and wait for them to wake up (from which we get the Wake). If the person had not woken then we move on to burial, but since burying someone alive was a disturbingly common occurrence, the person would be buried with cotton thread around one wrist. This thread would lead to the surface where it would be attached to a bell resting on a stick. It is from this that we get saved by the bell. Further etymological research indicates that the person payed to sit in the graveyard and listen for the bell ringing was the origin of the night shift being referred to as the graveyard shift!

  • Zinaida

    Softballs are actually harder than baseballs and much bigger, therefore when they hit you in the face at third base (third basemen play rather close to the plate) it comes with much greater force because of the size and the way it spins. No one really knows why it’s called a “soft”ball because even when it was still known at rag ball the ball was extremely large and heavy as well :)

  • Det0x

    “Saved by the bell” Can also mean when in school, and you didnt do your project/homework, and before the teacher can collect it, the bell rings, so you leave and get another chance to do it.

  • Darrell Grob

    As an American one of my favorite baseball idioms is saying you are going to do something “high and tight – acting towards someone in an intimidating and aggressive manner. It’s a pitching term meaning the pitcher is throwing the ball up close to the batter’s head, keeping the batter off balance or intimidating them to stand away from home plate.

    There are also regional sports idioms. I’m from St. Louis, Missouri and a term we use to express unexpected happiness would to say we should, “Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!” using that line exactly. It was originally a great call of a St. Louis Cardinals victory by sportscaster Jack Buck.

    Another sports idiom is “drop the gloves” from ice hockey. It means you are going to get very seriously involved in un-pleasantries with someone.

  • TWF

    I’m American and all of that was absolute and utter nonsense.

  • http://facebook.com/FerdinandCesarano Ferdinand Cesarano

    There is one baseball reference that is surprising common amongst Brits: “to step up to the plate”.