22 December 2015
Sports Word of the Year 2015
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?