Your third-grade phys ed teacher used them all the time. Your neighbor does, too. Even your teenage daughter pulls them out every once in a while.
We’re talking about sports idioms, those everyday phrases ingrained in our lexicon, handed down from generation to generation. We use these terms all the time, without really knowing where they came from. Some of their origins are pretty clear: front-runner, on the ropes, the ball is in your court. But there are many others whose provenances are not so apparent.
The world of sports is a particularly fertile ground for such terms, said Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press. “Sports are written about and discussed a lot, and so have generated a great deal of colorful, specialized vocabulary. And competition exists in many other spheres of life, so sports terms are well suited to be borrowed into other domains, such as business or politics.”
Here are some you may have used recently without knowing where they came from, or even that they had any sports connection at all.
Hat in the Ring
In The New York Times: Mr. Mahathir threw his hat in the ring in the recent national elections. Opinion, May 12.
Back in the days when boxing was a quasi-legal, rough-and-tumble affair, fighters and even spectators who had an interest in getting into a bout would signal it by tossing in a hat. It’s mostly used now in the rough-and-tumble field of politics to announce that one is running for office.
Its first use, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came in The London Times in 1804, in its literal sense: “Belcher first threw his hat into the ring, over the heads of the spectators.”
We need to get a little lost, pursue “productive and instructive disorientation, distraction, wild-goose chases, dead ends.” Book Review, June 4.
Shakespeare used it first, according to Oxford English Dictionary. Mercutio, in reference to a duel of wits with Romeo, said: “Nay if our wits run the wild goose chase, I am done.”
But it also was adopted in a sport. No, not from one involving geese. In the 17th century, it was quite the thing to set one horse off on a ramble and require the trailing horses, set off at intervals, to follow it as accurately as possible. It was known as a wild-goose chase. Soon the term became used for any hopeless quest.
Throw in the Towel
Anthony Barile, the owner of this wood-oven veteran where other pizza-makers honed their skills, said he was tired and throwing in the towel after nearly 26 years. Food, March 27.
In boxing, a fighter’s cornerman throwing a towel into the ring has traditionally been a sign of surrender, quitting or giving up. But in earlier times, it was a sponge that was hurled, and “chuck up the sponge” was the more common phrase.
A 1911 article in The New York Times about a fight in the Bronx used both terms: “His seconds threw a towel in the ring announcing defeat at the beginning of the fifth round” and “Johnson’s seconds threw up the sponge for their man and saved him a further beating.”
(The spectators were not happy with the towel or sponge’s appearance, The Times reported. “For a few moments it looked serious for the second, who was finally enabled to escape the angry fight followers by getting out of a side door of the clubhouse.”)
Also from boxing: down for the count, saved by the bell, take it on the chin and below the belt.
Out of Left Field
It was so out of left field and something so different than anything I’ve done. Movies, July 6.
Why is left field the spot where kooky ideas come from? Why not right or center? Well, no one is really too sure.
In 1961, William Safire devoted a Times column to the topic putting forth numerous ideas, including that left field was often deeper than right in early baseball stadiums, that weaker fielders were put in left and that left fielders tended to play farther back.
A more colorful explanation is that behind the left-field wall at the Cubs’ West Side Grounds, in use from 1893 to 1915, was a mental hospital whose patients could sometimes be heard making bizarre remarks during the game.
Sue is, hands-down, the best at this. I would marry her in a minute. Television, June 21.
It was an easy decision, not close at all, requiring no effort, but why is that “hands down”? It sounds like it might be from a card game, but it actually comes from horse racing. When a jockey has a race in the bag, he can relax his hold on the reins and stop urging the horse so hard.
Why do so many terms come from baseball, horse racing and boxing. These were the three most popular sports in the United States in the first part of the 20th century. And they required a big vocabulary.
“Think about all those baseball broadcasts over the decades and the need to come up with novel ways to express things,” Ms. Martin said.
A word or phrase might begin as a specialty term in sports, or another pastime, but then makes “a metaphorical extension,” and begins to have a meaning beyond the pastime. Eventually, its origin may even be forgotten.
“Sports is suited to being extended metaphorically,” Ms. Martin said. “At the time the metaphorical extension is made, the user and the hearer both have to understand it. But after that, it doesn’t matter. People use these terms all the time, even though no one knows what they are originally about.”
That’s true of many racing and boxing terms because the sports have faded in popularity. But “baseball ones are still obvious to us,” Ms. Martin said. “Home run, on deck, inside baseball.”
Wheelhouse, Strong Suit, Forte
One of the many subspecialities within Wright’s wheelhouse is Italian glass. Arts, April 17.
Something about a person’s strongest interest or ability seems to attract sports terms.
Wheelhouse comes from baseball: the area in which a batter feels most comfortable hitting the ball. Strong suit is from card games. And forte? Believe it or not, it’s a fencing term. The forte is the stronger part of a sword blade.
Back to Square One
I’ve been at customer sites where it has not gone well. Then we’re back to square one. Business, June 22.
As with many terms, there is a colorful explanation of the origin and a more prosaic and realistic one, though both originate with competition.
First the colorful one: When soccer was first broadcast on the radio in the 1920s in Britain, there was concern that fans would not be able to visualize the field well. So the field was divided into numbered squares, with charts published in newspapers. That way the announcer could say, “The ball is passed into Square 4, then dribbled into Square 6,” and fans used to watching games in person would understand what was going on. Square 1 was the area with the goalie, so a pass back to Square 1 would be a restarting of an offensive move.
The Oxford English Dictionary deflates that theory though, pointing out that the term’s use really began in the 1950s, some decades after the soccer broadcasting scheme stopped. It suggests the term actually comes from board games like chutes and ladders, in which players can find themselves sent back to the start.
Across the Board
Nearly across the board, for the last few years, award-show numbers have been plummeting. Arts, June 11.
People didn’t start using this term to mean “generally or “all inclusively” until the 1940s. But its use in horse racing predated that by 50 years. You can bet on a horse to win, place (second) or show (third). But if you make all three bets, in equal amounts, you are said to be taking the horse “across the board.” Early bookmakers would post odds on a sign or a board.
Another one from horse racing: Down to the wire. At one time, a wire was strung across the finish line at racetracks.
But ad-driven nostalgia is a sticky wicket. Australia, Feb. 7.
If someone is in a thorny situation (especially in the United Kingdom and its former colonies) he could be said to be in a sticky wicket. “Wicket” has several meanings in cricket, but the relevant one here is the area in the center of the field where the ball is bounced toward the batsman. If it has been raining, a not-uncommon occurrence in Britain, the ground may become wet and sticky, causing balls to bounce irregularly and giving the batsmen problems.
In 1895, The Times said of the Brooklyn cricket team: “In Archie Brown, the club has one of the best all-around cricketers in New-York, who is a first-class bat and a bowler who has been found very puzzling on a ‘sticky’ wicket.”
“Cricket is the U.K.’s baseball,” when it comes to the lexicon, Ms. Martin said. It’s beyond our purview to get into British English too deeply here; there are British alternatives for many terms in American sports.
While an American might be said to “punt” on a plan, a Briton might “kick it into touch.”
There’s the Rub
And there’s the rub: “If we befriend someone at work, it’s likely that we also need to work with them.” Smarter Living, May 28.
More Shakespearean sport: When Hamlet says “To sleep — perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!” by rub, he meant difficulty. The term comes from lawn bowling, of all sports.
The “rub” is an unevenness in the playing surface that can cause the ball to slow or alter course. A sticky wicket indeed!
The Super Blue Blood Moon: Pictures From an Astronomical Hat Trick. Science, Jan. 31.
You know this one, of course. It comes from three goals in hockey. Or maybe soccer.
Nope, the term’s use originated in cricket. One Heathfield Stephenson, playing for England in 1858, took three consecutive wickets in Sheffield. That prompted a collection to be taken up, and the money was used … to buy Stephenson a hat. It’s not known what sort of hat, or how he reacted to the gift. But his “trick” officially had a name.
The term was being used in newspapers by the 1860s, and the Oxford English Dictionary cites its use in horse racing (three wins in a row for a jockey) in 1893, and soccer in 1901.
The Big Apple
Some New Yorkers refer to the Big Apple as “the city.” Style, May 7.
In the 19th century, people with a lot of certainty about something might have said that they were willing to “bet a big apple” on it. Perhaps that helped extend the use to horse racing, and New York’s racing circuit, the most prominent in the country, came to be known by the term.
“The Big Apple,” The Morning Telegraph wrote in 1924. “The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There’s only one Big Apple. That’s New York.”
Soon all of New York had picked up the name.
What’s on Deck?
Which sports terms are most likely to join the common parlance in the future? “Anything about going up or down in space like a jump or fall,” Ms. Martin said, “is likely to get a metaphorical extension into other areas.”
Ms. Martin said another fertile area for American English is the military, which, like sports, has been a shared experience of many generations. Many terms from the military and sports found their way into the business world. Perhaps not coincidentally, all three were once almost exclusively male bastions.
So, will more sports idioms be sprouting up in the years to come? You could bet a big apple on it.