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Social Science blog

18 December 2017

BL Sports Word of the Year 2017

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:

And so this is Christmas … and what have you done? Me? Well, I’ve been compiling examples of interesting English usage in the British sporting press and media for the 4th unofficial British Library Sports Word of the Year (SWOTY 2017). Unlike the various ‘official’ Word of the Year Awards, which collectively reflect how global politics continues to dominate public discourse – Oxford Dictionaries declared youthquake its winner; Collins chose fake news and Merriam-Webster plumped for feminism – this review, like most sports punditry, is completely unscientific and entirely subjective. So, on the day after Mo Farah finally won BBC Sports Personality of the Year and Jess Ennis was rightly recognised with a Lifetime Achievement Award, here are the 10 candidates for SWOTY 2017:

February (Ed Leigh of Sweden’s Sven Thorgren’s final jump at Air & Style Innsbruck 2017, BBC Ski Sunday): cab twelve sixty double shifty rewind roast beef

April (Peter Allis of Rory McIlroy’s bunker shot at 7th hole at 2017 Masters, BBC2 Masters Day 3): that could’ve been a Lucy Locketseptic tank

June (Geoff Lemon of Australian batsman Adam Voges impressive Test batting average, Guardian Sport): Voges has immovably rolled out a banana lounge on the Test average list next to Bradman

August (Paul McInnes of interval between second and final session when Edgbaston staged first ever day-night Test in England, Guardian Sport) rather than bemoan the creation of an entirely new meal break, coined ‘trunch’ by my colleague Andy Bull, the Edgbaston crowd were bang into it

August (Guardian Sport ‘in brief’ review of 2017 Netball Quad Series) The Roses overturned a 13-point deficit in the first quarter to secure only their fifth win in 88 matches against the Silver Ferns

September (Sloane Stephens on her near flawless 2017 US Open Final victory, Guardian Sport) I made six unforced errors in the whole match? Shut the front door

April (Paul Rees speculating on coach Warren Gatland’s tactical approach during Lions tour to New Zealand, Guardian Sport) Warrenball did for Australia four years ago but it will be the third generation version this summer

December (Ali Martin of England batsman James Vince’s batting technique, Guardian Sport) Nick city’ was how the likeable Kerry O’Keefe described the right-hander’s open bat face in his first innings just seconds before Josh Hazlewood exploited this exact glitch via a tame punch to a ball

December (Ali Martin of England debutant Craig Overton’s batting prospects in First Ashes Test, Guardian Sport): Overton, fresh from three ducks in the warm-ups, was on for the dreaded ‘Audi

December (Sean Dyche of Burnley briefly moving into Premier League top 4 following victory against Stoke City, Sky Sports News): I’m very proud I’m super proud prouder than the proudest man in Proudsville

As in previous years the list is drawn from several sports that make an annual appearance – one each for golf, tennis, rugby union, football and netball and four for cricket – while this year sees one newcomer in freestyle snowboarding. It’s difficult to say whether the monopoly of certain sports is entirely down to my own reading preferences and sporting interests or more a reflection of the relative column inches/broadcast airtime afforded each sport. Certainly, in a year in which England’s women won a thrilling World Cup and both our men and women have contested (less thrillingly) the Ashes, it’s perhaps not surprising that cricket is particularly well represented.

Linguistically the list can be categorised in a number of ways. Two entries are examples of sporting jargon – words or expressions used by a profession or interest group that can be difficult for others to understand. Perhaps the most impenetrable sequence of words here is the wonderful cab twelve sixty double shifty rewind roast beef which I’m reliably informed describes a particularly impressive jump manoeuvre in which a snowboarder performs a 720º rotation with their hands between their legs on the opposite edge of the board before slowing down, over-rotating back and rotating another 360º before landing. I think. This list of snowboard tricks might help. Warrenball, on the other hand, refers to a style of attritional rugby based around attempting to break the opposition midfield defence with a series of ‘crash ball’ runners. The term, associated with the Wales coach Warren Gatland, is linguistically intriguing as it’s formed by adding the suffix –ball to Gatland’s first name, thus referencing Moneyball, a methodology employed by Oakland Athletics baseball team general manager, Billy Beane. The principle of Moneyball was to create a successful baseball team by prioritising statistical analysis and empirical evidence over collective coaching wisdom and ‘instinct’. Both Moneyball and Warrenball, despite achieving consistent success, are often viewed negatively as somehow more dispassionate and sterile compared with other approaches perceived to be more imaginative or inventive, which is perhaps why Gatland himself distances himself from the term.

Three entries are intriguing as I suspect they started out life as nonce-words – i.e. a word coined for use on one specific occasion. Two are used in reference to cricket and might subsequently have been adopted more widely, but to my knowledge remain pretty low-frequency. The first, Audi [= four consecutive scores of nought] is a visual reference to the brand logo of the car manufacturer – four interlocking (i.e. consecutive) letters ‘O’ or zeroes. This visual association mirrors the use of bagel to refer to a score of ‘love’ (i.e. zero) in tennis, which was a nominee for SWOTY 2014. The second is trunch, a blend of ‘lunch’ and ‘tea break’ – the ‘traditional’ timings of intervals in Test match cricket – to represent the somewhat later timing of the interval during the floodlit evening session of a day-night Test. Lucy locket and septic tank are examples of rhyming slang for ‘socket’ and ‘shank’ respectively, both of which are in turn golfing jargon for the point where a club head meets the shaft and a mishit shot in which (for a right-handed player) the ball squirts out diagonally to the right of the intended target. This online Cockney Rhyming Slang website suggests Lucy Locket and septic tank are indeed established rhyming slang forms, but for ‘pocket’ and ‘Yank’ (i.e. American). The fact the word shank is disguised by the commentator in this way not only shows our great affection for the creative possibilities of rhyming slang, but would also be immediately understood by golfers as (rather like mentioning Macbeth to an actor about to appear in The Scottish Play) there is a well-known superstition among golfers that uttering the word shank will instantly result in succumbing to the shot oneself.

One entry this year captures the proliferation of nicknames in sporting nomenclature. In most cases this is part and parcel of the team itself – United or Wednesday enables us to distinguish between Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday, for instance. Many US team sports are characterised by teams that bear a franchise name – the Rams have played variously in Cleveland, Los Angeles, St Louis and are now based back in Los Angeles. This often mystifies British sports fans, although we can no longer claim it’s a uniquely American phenomenon – consider the Rugby Union team Wasps who in the days of amateur Rugby Union were based in Sudbury, but shortly after the advent of professionalism relocated to High Wycombe and, more recently, Coventry. In many cases, teams have an additional nickname such as the Blades [= Sheffield United] and, especially in international sport, teams are increasingly likely (possibly for commercial reasons?) to be referred to by their nickname alone. The Roses [= England Netball] and Silver Ferns [= New Zealand Netball], here, are two examples of several I’ve found in the Guardian alone, including the following five that I suspect might prove difficult quiz questions for many: Djurtus [= Guinee-Bissau football (male)]; Brave Blossoms [= Japan Rugby Union (male)]; Black Ferns [New Zealand Rugby Union (female)]; Spar Proteas [= South Africa netball (female)]; and Kumuls [= Papua New Guinea Rugby League (male)]

The other four items fall loosely into the category of slang. They’re certainly not exclusive to sport, but are interesting because they demonstrate how vernacular and colloquial expressions permeate even mainstream print and media coverage of sport. The term banana lounge is Australian slang for a ‘sun-lounger/reclining deck chair’, while shut the front door is a US English exclamation expressing surprise or disbelief. The final two are also originally US slang phrases, but in this case used by an English football manager and a former Australian cricketer. The use of –ville as a terminal element to refer to a fictitious place associated with a particular quality, is dated to 1863 by the OED; the analogous use of City is listed from 1946. The fact a Burnley football manager, Sean Dyche, chooses to express his pride by reference to Proudsville and Australian commentator, Kerry O’Keefe describes James Vince’s tendency to be dismissed caught behind as Nick city are testament to how – like rhyming slang – such idiomatic expressions are so endlessly productive and entertaining.

Many of the terms above are documented in authoritative dictionaries in the British Library's collections, but some are yet to appear in print reference works, so their presence in our newspaper collections and web archives is an invaluable resource for language scholars monitoring the continued evolution of English. And as for this year’s winner – much though I’m tempted by cab twelve sixty double shifty rewind roast beef I don’t think I really understand it even now, so I’m going to plump for shut the front door, simply because I had to ask my seventeen-year-old daughter what Sloane Stephens meant.