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21 December 2016

Sports Word of the Year 2016

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:

So congratulations to Andy Murray on his well-deserved victory at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) awards, one of countless ceremonies that take place at this time of year as clubs, societies, institutions and industries recognise the outstanding people, events or phenomena of the previous twelve months. In a year dominated by political upheaval it’s perhaps not surprising that linguists at Oxford Dictionaries chose ‘post-truth’ as their Word of the Year 2016 from a list of candidates that included several items reflecting contemporary societal challenges – Brexiteer, glass cliff and alt-right. Here then, in similar spirit, are my ten nominations for the 3rd unofficial British Library Sports Word of the Year (SWOTY) selected from examples of interesting English usage in the British sporting press and media in 2016:

January (Lawrence Ostlere on Jade Clarke signing for Loughborough Lightning, Guardian Sport): The mid-courter values her time abroad and wants to see more young players experience the ANZ Championship

January (Richard Williams on the treacherous Hahnenkamm downhill slope in Kitzbühel, Guardian Sport): This week’s new snow will enable the skiers to tackle the Streif’s whole length, from its near vertical start to the fiendish icy traverse of the final schuss

March (Eddie Jones on the Welsh RFU’s vacillation regarding Joe Marler’s alleged description of Welsh prop Sampson Lee as ‘gypsy boy’, Radio 5 Live) They don’t know whether they’re Arthur or Martha

May (Robert Kitson on Saracens wing Chris Ashton, Guardian Sport) The player who used to appear several scones short of a tea party has matured and learned from his mistakes

June (Neil Lennon on Wales v Northern Ireland at Euro 2016, Radio 5 Live) The game’s a bit eachy-peachy

June (Barney Ronay on England’s humiliating Euro 2016 defeat to Iceland, Guardian Sport) For the next few months a post-Royxit vacuum beckons

July (Andy Sullivan on how to hit a fade shot, Sky Sports 1) I […] just open my stance up to hit that little lemonade

August (Aaron Bower quoting Gareth Ellis in the build-up to the Challenge Cup Final, Guardian Sport) Last year I was limping around with a pot on [my foot] and now I’m leading Hull out at a cup final

August (Emma John on the women’s Olympic hockey final, Guardian Sport) The first four shuffles had gone begging before the Dutch keeper Joyce Sombroek was ruled to have deliberately fouled Sophie Bray

November (Simon Hughes on the wicket for India v England 2nd Test): [It’s unlikely to be] a raging Bunsen straightaway

As in previous years the list is drawn from the usual suspects – football and rugby union (two entries each), rugby league, cricket and golf (one each), but this year includes netball, skiing and hockey for the first time. The ten nominations have been chosen as they demonstrate a range of linguistic phenomena from jargon, slang and dialect to loan-words and neologisms. Having spent several years teaching German I’m particularly pleased to include the skiing term schuss [= a straight downhill descent] as a rare example of a sporting loan-word. English dominates sporting discourse for a number of reasons – not just the current status of English as a global language, but also the influential role played by the British in codifying many (but by no means all) international sports. Thus loan-words are relatively rare, but alpine sport, understandably, is a notable exception as illustrated by e.g. piste, après-ski (both from French), langlauf (like schuss, from German), slalom and, of course, the word ski itself (both from Norwegian). Loan-words surface from time to time in other sports – in recent years football has appropriated rabona, tiki-taka and last year’s SWOTY winner, gegenpressing, for instance – but unlike schuss these tend to appear italicised or within speech marks in print, reflecting their novelty or status as exotic, potentially temporary terms. Schuss is an example of sporting jargon – a technical term used by participants, coaches and fans and universally understood within those circles to describe a particular action, skill or element of the sport. The other examples of jargon here are shuffle [= a system used to determine the winner of a drawn contest in hockey in which an attacker has 8 seconds to score a goal in a one-on-one situation against the goalkeeper] and mid-courter [= netballer who specialises in playing centre, wing defence or wing attack]. Thankfully, GB goalkeeper, Maddie Hinch, cemented her reputation this summer as the world’s best at penalty shuffles and anyone familiar with netball (or basketball) will know the value of a versatile mid-courter.

Six entries reveal sporting discourse as a particularly rich repository of vernacular forms. Three items might reasonably be categorised as dialect: eachy-peachy [= phrase equivalent to ‘six of one, half a dozen of the other’]; pot [= plaster cast]; and not know whether one is Arthur or Martha [= to be in a state of confusion]. The other three might be classified as slang: several scones short of a tea party [= slightly, albeit endearingly, mad]; lemonade [= rhyming slang for ‘little fade’, i.e. a golf shot that is directed intentionally left of the target and drifts right in the air before landing]; and Bunsen [= rhyming slang for ‘Bunsen burner: turner’, i.e. a wicket likely to be advantageous to spin bowlers]. Finally, Royxit [= the resignation of former England football manager Roy Hodgson] demonstrates the enthusiasm with which the media latched on to neologisms formed by analogy with Brexit – a blend of <British> and <exit> that quickly established itself as universal shorthand for the UK’s decision to leave the European Union following this June’s referendum. Politics, of course, has always had an impact on language so it will be interesting to see if forms like Brexit prove as prolific as the infinitely productive suffix <-gate> that originated in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s which prompted the resignation of US President Richard Nixon. In July 2016, for instance, Coiffeurgate trended on Twitter following revelations of French President François Hollande’s allegedly extravagant hairdressing bill, and, during television coverage of this summer’s Olympic marathon, Steve Cram urged fellow BBC commentators, Brendan Foster & Paula Radcliffe, to end a long-winded discussion of Bahrainian athlete Alemu Bekele’s frequent stops to tie his shoelaces with the phrase enough of Lacegate. Guardian journalist Sean Ingle’s use of Chexit and Lexit to refer, respectively, to Chelsea’s and Liverpool’s current absence from European football competition demonstrates how such light-hearted wordplay appeals to our sense of linguistic creativity.

Not surprisingly, Brexit merits an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, unlike Royxit, which, as a neologism, is unlikely to meet criteria for inclusion. Many of this year’s candidates are recorded in authoritative reference works, but some have yet to reach the attention of lexicographers, so their presence in the British Library’s newspaper collections, web and sound archives is an invaluable resource for language scholars monitoring the continued evolution of English. The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, includes mid-court and schuss, Collins English Dictionary categorises not know whether one is Arthur or Martha as ‘Australian and New Zealand informal’, while the Dictionary of the Scots Language records eachy-peachy from the 1960s. The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2006 edition) includes several examples of NOUN short of a NOUN (e.g. sandwich short of a picnic) and the BBC Voices survey (2004/5) captured numerous similar variants (e.g. slice short of a loaf and brick short of a load) confirming this is an extremely productive metaphor for mild eccentricity, although neither features scone short of a tea party. I’ve been unable to find the others in print glossaries, although the Cockney Rhyming Slang website suggests Bunsen burner is established rhyming slang, albeit for ‘earner’, i.e. easy/quick profit, not for ‘turner’. Proof of their authenticity, however, can be found in specialist reference works and publications: Martin Williamson’s glossary of cricket terms includes Bunsen in the sense recorded here and a Golf Digest article confirms the use of lemonade in this sense and both forms bear witness to our enduring fascination with, and affection for, rhyming slang. Wikipedia explains the importance of shuffles in hockey, while pot is captured in a recording submitted to the Library’s Evolving English WordBank.

And so to this year’s winner … given the incomprehensible absence of female athletes in this year’s SPOTY top three and comparative lack of representation in the nominations here drawn from women’s sport – a reflection of the glaringly disproportionate prominence of men’s sport in the mainstream media – combined with the presence of glass cliff in the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year nominations I’m going for shuffles in honour of the extraordinary achievement of GB women’s hockey team securing their first Olympic Gold. Fingers crossed for an increased profile for women’s sport and continued success in women’s hockey in 2017 – especially @DUHC1 Women’s 1st XI and @southgateHC Ladies 2nd XI.

22 December 2015

Sports Word of the Year 2015

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:

It's that time of year again when clubs, societies, institutions and industries reflect on the previous twelve months and nominate people, events or phenomena for special recognition. In November, for instance, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) stunned linguists and pedants alike by choosing a pictograph – the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji as their Word of the Year; VLM reviewers deliberated the merits of Foals’ What Went Down and Tame Impala’s Currents for their Album of the Year; and on Sunday BBC Sports Personality of the Year was awarded to Andy Murray. So, in a year where, despite recent events on the football pitch, Jose Mourinho’s outstanding contribution to our sporting lexicon drew academic attention, here are my nominations for Sports Word of the Year 2015 selected from examples of interesting English usage in the British sporting press and media:


February (BBC online Cricket World Cup live update) [Tim Southee] sends down an absolute jaffa which cuts Dilshan in half

May (Guardian Sport): [Martin Guptill] made a brief and extremely eye-catching return to crowd-pleasing one-day stylings with this massive six to cow corner

June (Mike Selvey, Guardian Sport): Tim Southee joined a pretty exclusive club of Test pace bowlers who have conceded a gallon in both innings of a Test

June (ex-Aussie cricketer Jason Gillespie, Radio 5 Live): we’re not playing for sheep stations

July (Jim Maxwell, Test Match Special, Radio 5 Live): 120 looks a bit too skinny for Australia to defend

September (Robert Kitson quoting Orrel Director of Rugby, Ian Hollis, Guardian Sport): around here they still think union’s a game of kick and clap

September (Robert Kitson, Guardian Sport): he doesn’t care where he’s playing, who he’s playing against or what Twickenham alickadoos make of his appearance

November (Jamie Jackson, Guardian Sport): The victory was a triumph for Klopp’s gegenpressing ethos

November (George Riley, England vs. New Zealand Rugby League First Test, BBC1): if ifs and buts were chips and putts we’d all be Gary Player

December (John Rawling, Fighting Talk, Radio 5 Live): Dennis Wise a nasty little five footer

The dominance of cricket and rugby in this year’s nominations reflects the fact 2015 featured a Cricket World Cup, an Ashes series and Rugby Union World Cup, but golf and football also make the cut. Seven items are restricted to the discourse of their respective sports of which three are international cricketing slang: cow corner is an area on the leg-side boundary to which a batsman plays an ‘agricultural’, i.e. unconventional slog; a jaffa is an unplayable delivery; and if a bowler concedes 100 runs in a single innings he has the dubious distinction of recording a gallon – the less desirable equivalent of a batsman’s century or ton; kick and clap is used by British Rugby League fans as an expression of disdain for Rugby Union deriving from a typical Union crowd’s penchant for politely clapping repeated passages of kicking in contrast to League supporters’ enthusiastic encouragement of running and passing; alickadoo is used within Rugby Union circles, equally disparagingly, to refer to a somewhat out of touch ‘hanger-on’ or feckless club administrator; gegenpressing refers, in football, to the tactic of collectively pressurising the opposition immediately after a turnover of possession; and a Dennis Wise is golfing shorthand for a relatively short but annoyingly scary putt – a jocular reference to ex-professional footballer, Dennis Wise, who had a reputation for confrontation despite his diminutive stature. Two are idiomatic expressions: not playing for sheep stations is an Australian phrase roughly equivalent to ‘it’s not a matter of life and death’; while if ifs and buts were chips and putts we’d all be Gary Player adds a sporting twist to a well-known saying – Gary Player is a South African professional golfer and nine-times major winner; finally skinny refers here to an uncompetitively low run total.

Most importantly, the ten have been selected as they demonstrate a range of linguistic phenomena, from jargon and slang to dialect and proverb. Perhaps surprisingly not many are documented in conventional dictionaries or glossaries, so their presence in the BL’s newspaper collections and/or TV and radio archives represents an invaluable record for language scholars investigating developments in the English language. The OED (online) includes skinny as a colloquial form for ‘mean/stingy/grudging’, which captures the way it is used in northern dialect and one can readily see how, by extension, this might apply to a low score in cricket – sports reporters often refer, for instance, to a ‘miserly defence’. The OED also has an entry for alickadoo, categorising it as originally Irish English, while John Miller’s Essential Lingo Dictionary of Australian Words and Phrases has an entry for playing for sheep stations (2015: 161). Geoff Tibball attributes Dennis Wise to British journalist and presenter, Des Kelly, in his compilation of sporting quotations, The Bowler’s Holding the Batsman’s Willy (2008: 189) and the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2005) includes the proverb if ifs and ands were pots and pans, there’d be no work for tinkers’ hands as a ‘traditional response to an over-optimistic conditional expression’ – i.e. a common retort to someone wistfully saying ‘if only …’. Coincidentally, a variant of this also made an appearance on a recent episode of Coronation Street (16 November 2015) when Erica Holroyd comforted Liz McDonald over her latest calamitous relationship break-up: as me mother always says if ifs and buts were whisky and nuts we’d all have a merry Christmas.


To my knowledge, none of the other terms have been captured in English print reference works. An internet search for gegenpressing, however, returns 219,000 hits so this is clearly well established sporting jargon. As a former German teacher, I find it a particularly intriguing loan word as it contains a German element gegen [= ‘against’] blended with an English gerund pressing. Similar constructions occur in German sporting discourse even when unidiomatic in English – das Dribbling, for instance. Like other loan words in football (cf. tiki-taka and catenaccio) the relish with which it has been adopted by the British press not only speaks volumes for the charisma of Liverpool manager, Jürgen Klopp, with whom it is most closely associated, but also reflects our constant desire to adopt the latest European tactical innovation. Cow corner, on the other hand, transports me to my schooldays and a Yorkshire cricket master, who viewed any shot in that direction with utter contempt. Neither this nor jaffa warrant entries in print dictionaries, but both appear in Wikipedia’s Glossary of Cricket Terms; gallon is surprisingly absent, but is included in a rival online cricket glossary, while kick and clap appears in League Freak's Rugby League Dictionary.

So to this year’s winner: much though I sympathise, as a Castleford Tigers fan, with the sentiment expressed in kick and clap and was delighted to see Kevin Sinfield come runner-up on Sunday, deep down even football fans with no affiliation to Liverpool (myself included) have to admit we’re all rather excited about the arrival of Jürgen Klopp, so it’s got to be gegenpressing, hasn’t it?