Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Sporting metaphors

Recently I was thinking about sporting metaphors, as you do, and I was struck by how many of them have passed into common parlance. Apparently English (and I mean English English, not American or Australian English) has more of these than any other language. I’m not talking about clichés – game of two halves; sick as a parrot; bulging the auld onion bag (or indeed anything by Tommy Smyth ‘with a y’ – yes, why are you on my television?) – but actual metaphors.

It’s no surprise that we have a load from football; score an own goal; on a level playing field; from the kick-off; moving the goalposts; back of the net. It amuses me that the ones from rugby generally imply defeat or incompetence; kicked into touch; blind-sided; drop the ball. And then there’s the insidious way they creep into business speak as those around the boardroom try to make their meaningless drivel sound more entertaining – pick up the ball and run with it, anyone?

I also find it amusing that many of the metaphors derived from cricket relate to complete and utter bemusement; bowled over; stumped; hit for six; caught and bowled; sticky wicket. Apart from being forever linked with confusion (Americans don’t even understand these expressions, let alone the game), cricket is also associated with ‘fair play’; itself a term to which any number of sports can lay claim. I like ‘it’s just not cricket’ and ‘he/she had a good innings’. It generally shows initiative to do something off your own bat (not back, which is a common misapprehension).

Horse-racing also provides a host of metaphors; first past the post; also-ran; neck and neck; down to the wire; win hands down; by a nose; ringer/ring-in; flogging a dead horse. Motor racing gives us pole position and pit stops, while it could be any kind of racing that supplies the home stretch, first out of the blocks, front runner and false starts.

Some sporting metaphors have no definitive origin. Crying foul, grand-standing, being on the bench, getting the ball rolling, and keeping your eye on the ball could come from a variety of sports.

Other metaphors are clearly derived from one source. Golfers were the only ones originally under par and it was only those playing bowls who need concern themselves with the rub of the green. Touché was a cry reserved for fencers; high-jumpers (and potentially pole-vaulters) raised the bar; and those scoring card games, particularly cribbage, were level pegging. Chess players had opening gambits, end-games and reached stalemates; tennis players knew the ball was in their court; wrestlers were told there were no holds barred; and there are no prizes for guessing who was snookered.

If you consider sailing a sport, rather than merely an extravagant waste of money, there are numerous metaphors, frequently involving drinking and other states less than top-hole (bar billiards). So you can be on an uneven keel, three sheets to the wind, chock-a-block, be taken down a peg or two, or have the wind taken out of your sails. To avoid such trouble you may have to change tack, batten down the hatches and get all hands on deck.

It surprises me that we employ so many baseball metaphors in English – a sport that we don’t even play. However, these are generally used in the business world (dominated by American capitalism) and the sexual sphere (heavily influenced by the American film industry).

So pointless management meetings will be all about touching base, stepping up to the plate, throwing curve balls, knocking things out of the park, covering all the bases, playing hardball (as opposed to softball), hitting a home run, coming out of left field, three strikes and you’re out, pinch hitters and taking rain checks. Meanwhile testosterone-challenged teenagers (the same ones who will [arguably] grow up to spout this boardroom bingo) will be trying to get first base.

Perhaps most surprising, however, is the clear ruler of the sporting metaphor kingdom: boxing. For a sport that many people claim to disdain, it racks up (snooker?) more common phrases than any other. Here are some:

Against the ropes
Beat someone to the punch
Below the belt
Best foot forward
Blow-by-blow account
Boxing clever
Come out swinging
Down and out
Fancy footwork
Gloves are off
Have someone in your corner
No stomach for the fight
On the back foot
Out for the count
Pull one’s punches
Punch above your weight
Punching bag
Ringside seat
Roll with the punches
Saved by the bell
Sparring partner
Sucker punch
Take a dive
Take it on the chin
Throw in the towel
Throw your hat into the ring

Monday, 28 December 2009

My newest favourite thing: Mascots

There’s something strangely endearing about the sight of a grown man dressed up in a fluffy mascot costume clapping his hands and covering his eyes with oversized hands. It’s a Knockout realised the humorous potential and featured many comedy capers as folk with giant feet raced each other over obstacle courses collecting water in buckets, while Stuart Hall collapsed in hysterics.

When I worked at a bookshop in the children’s department, there were plenty of character costumes to wear. I remember once being crammed into a Mr Happy suit with a hangover – it wasn’t pleasant and the darling little kiddies kept poking me in my giant eyes and pulling my fingers going, ‘There’s a person in there.’

I did, however, fare rather better than our deputy manager who once ventured out into St Anne’s Square in the fat puffin costume without a minder. This probably went down a treat in West Wombletown or some such, but the inner city Manchester kids soon knocked her to the ground, pulled off the head (of the costume that is) and rolled her around the cobbles. Her orange tight-clad legs were wiggling out of the bottom of the costume complete with webbed feet, but she couldn’t stand up as she became an impromptu football. She wasn’t hurt although the costume (and her pride) was dented, but I’m afraid to admit I may have been doing a Stuart Hall impersonation of my own.

And now it’s an intense few days for the English Premier League so I am watching hours of football – most of their teams have mascots, and in fact there is a hotly contested annual mascot race. Liverpool have a Liver Bird, which stands to reason, and lots of teams (Chelsea; Aston Villa; Reading; Bolton; Middlesborough; Blackburn) have lions, which seem appropriately large and fearsome. Manchester City’s Moonchester is oddly cool and West Ham’s Herbie the Hammer is frankly odd.

Burnley have Bertie Bee. Him Outdoors once bought me a cuddly Bertie Bee – he was very proud of himself for giving me this gift. Bertie is really not to be messed with and is actually a former rugby league player, as a streaker in a match against Preston found to his disadvantage.

I actually really like Gunnersaurus – he stands in the tunnel and shakes hands with all the players when they get off the bus. The Arsenal players often give him a hug or a slap on the back too, while the away team look at him with bewilderment. I can understand their bemusement; it seems an odd thing to do to dress up in a hot furry costume and pretend to be one of the lads, but if anyone will, the English will. Long live their peculiarities.