Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:
It’s perhaps not surprising that vax and its more conventional older sibling, vaccine, were designated 2021 Word Of The Year by dictionaries in the UK and USA respectively. This weekend also sees the annual BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) awards ceremony, which leads rather neatly to my annual review of linguistic highlights I’ve collected from mainstream media over the last twelve months in search of the 8th unofficial British Library Sports Word of The Year (SWOTY 2021). Inevitably, pandemic-related vocabulary once again featured prominently in sports coverage throughout 2021. In The Guardian alone, last year’s ubiquitous biosecure bubble subtly morphed into bio-bubble or simply bubble, while pingdemic began to appear in the sports pages from July as numerous sportsmen and -women withdrew from teams or events to self-isolate following notification of a close contact to Covid-19. Despite this, the terms selected here focus exclusively on the more enduring aspects of sporting discourse. Here, then are the ten nominees for SWOTY 2021:
February (Sir Alastair Cook responding to praise at his prediction that England would win the men’s Test at Chennai, Channel 4): even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while
February (Ebony Rainford-Brent reflecting on England’s victory in the men’s Test in Chennai): the batters set things up in the first innings
March (Pamela Cookey’s half time analysis of Severn Stars tactics in the Vitality Super League fixture against Leeds Rhinos, Sky Sports Mix): [they] had time to work that to circle edge you can see the desperation
April (Nick Dougherty responding to Butch Harmon’s comment about Cameron Smith’s haircut at The Masters, Sky Sports Golf): I think they call it a Tennessee waterfall over there
July (Mel Jones describing Imran Tahir’s extravagant dive after taking a catch for Birmingham Phoenix against Southern Brave, Sky Sports Main Event): I thought he put a bit of mayo on that
July (Liam Gallagher tweet following Emma Raducanu’s success at Wimbledon, Guardian Sport): get on the Les Dennis tday [sic] and get behind Emma Raducanu celestial talent
August (Charlotte Worthington explains her first ever in-competition 360 back flip in Olympic BMX Freestyle, BBC 5 Live): I managed to pull off the 360 back flip aka the Ferrari which we kept under tight wraps in the lead up to the games
August (Deep Dasgupta discussing the batting approach of Indian cricketers, KS Rahul & Rohit Sharma) both of them have played what we call khadoos cricket
September (Ewen Murray quoting Lexi Thompson’s opinion on the absence of European supporters at the Solheim Cup, Guardian Sport): Thompson insisted the scale of backing for the US will not apply the P-word
November (Vicky Sparks quoting Beth Mead’s own explanation of an intentional shot-cum-cross at a free kick, BBC 5 Live): she calls it a crots
December (Chloe Merrell summarising England’s victory in the second Test v Jamaica, Guardian Sport): Sophie Drakeford-Lewis was tried at wing attack
This year’s list embraces six sports – cricket, netball, golf, tennis, BMX, and football. As in previous years, cricket features prominently, undoubtedly a reflection of the sport’s notoriously arcane vocabulary, but also perhaps because the stop-start nature of the game offers greater opportunity for spontaneous chat during a typical live commentary. In contrast to previous years, seven of the ten entries are attributed to women and six relate to female sport – a result, perhaps, of the gradual, but long overdue, increase in coverage of female sport and of greater female representation in the sporting media.
The entries reveal the usual linguistic suspects, including examples of jargon (i.e. specialised vocabulary, e.g. batter, circle edge and wing attack) and slang (i.e. informal forms, e.g. put a bit of mayo on, Les Dennis and Ferrari), while the phrase even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while looks like an idiom or even a proverb. The increasing influence of the Indian subcontinent on cricketing vocabulary is evident in the loan word khadoos. P-word is a code word formed by the well-established morphological process of taking the initial letter of the intended word and adding the suffix <-word>. I suspect P-word , like the blend crots, is a neologism (i.e. an idiosyncratic expression coined by the user for a one-off occasion). All ten demonstrate how press and media sports coverage is an excellent resource for discovering vernacular English.
The term batter [= ‘player who bats in cricket’] is recorded in the OED from 1773, but the most recent citation is 1854, while the hitherto more established form, batsman, has entries that run from 1744 to 1927. Until recently, for most (male?) British cricketers, batter was generally associated with Australian usage – i.e. a rare example of sporting dialect – but in September this year the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) officially adopted the form, batter, in its Laws of the Game. Promoting a gender-neutral term over a previously more widespread form is an unusual example of a governing body changing its terminology to reflect (and endorse) social change. Inevitably, the term divides opinion in cricketing circles, although the citation here pre-dates the ECB resolution. As a female ex-England cricketer, I imagine Ebony Rainford-Brent has always viewed this form as perfectly natural and uncontentious, and it’s reassuring to note that The Guardian has consistently used batter in its cricket coverage all year.
The two other items of jargon here come from netball. Watching Vitality Super League matches this season I’ve been struck by the number of commentators and players who refer to a specific area of the court as circle edge, rather than the (to me) more grammatically instinctive construction, the edge of the circle. By way of contrast, hockey players refer to the equivalent part of a hockey pitch as the edge of the circle (or, even more commonly the edge of the D). This preference for a compound noun and zero definite article in netball is confirmed by numerous netball coaching manuals, while the FIH rulebook confirms the preference for possessive ‘of’ in hockey.
While every football position I can think of and indeed every fielding position in cricket, many of which are delightfully obscure, merits an entry in either the OED or its open access counterpart, Lexico, I was surprised to discover that the netball position, wing attack, does not warrant an entry in either. Interestingly, Lexico has entries for centre, goal attack and goal defence, but not for wing attack nor for wing defence. Yet anyone who has ever played netball – presumably at least half the UK population – will be familiar with the term and has worn a WA bib to prove it. In fact, the names for netball positions – and their corresponding abbreviations – were clearly considered sufficiently mainstream to appear as clues in March this year on BBC2’s Only Connect Series 16 Final; so come on, OED: let’s have wing attack and wing defence in the dictionary.
Returning to cricket, Test Match Special commentator, Deep Dasgupta, described India’s openers, KS Rahul and Rohit Sharma, as typical khadoos cricketers [= ‘unspectacular but gritty and determined’]. ESPN Cricinfo website describes khadoos as a common label in Indian cricketing circles, especially in Mumbai, for a type of unglamorous, uncompromising cricketer with a never-say die attitude.
A 2017 article in the Hindu Sportstar uses the veiled form, K-word, to refer to the same phenomenon – mirroring analogous disguised forms, which serve as euphemisms (e.g. F-word) or as a means of avoiding offensive terms (e.g. N-word). The implication is that khadoos has negative connotations for some, which is presumably the implication here with P-word [= ‘pressure’]. Sports stars understandably go to considerable lengths to disguise any outward display of nerves, so the use of P-word here suggests that the word pressure is not even in Lexi Thompson’s vocabulary. The OED lists several ‘X-word’ forms, but I haven’t found any supporting evidence for widespread use of P-word in this sense. The construction itself is clearly highly productive as in October, B-word [= ‘banter’] appeared in The Guardian as shorthand used by some (unsuccessfully, thankfully) to try and justify the unacceptable dressing room culture experienced by Azeem Rafiq and others at Yorkshire County Cricket Club and elsewhere.
As in previous years, several entries illustrate how the spontaneous nature of live commentary, punditry and post-match interviews promotes light-hearted exchanges and playful language. Our enduring fascination with, and enthusiasm for, rhyming slang, is demonstrated by Les Dennis [= ‘tennis’], which features in the wonderful Cockney Rhyming Slang website, while Urban Dictionary records Tennessee Waterfall [= ‘mullet-style haircut’] and adding mayo [= ‘to exaggerate a story that is not that exciting in order to get a reaction from listeners’], i.e. expressing a similar notion to Mel Jones’s use here of put a bit of mayo on. Similarly typical of our individual and shared pleasure in wordplay is the form crots [= ‘cross-cum-shot’ i.e. a ball played towards goal in the hope that it will either result in a goal or a goalscoring opportunity for a teammate]. As a blend of the words cross and shot, it’s interesting to note that Beth Mead favours crots over its potential rival shoss – presumably because crots adheres more instinctively to English phonotactic rules.
I haven’t found any other reference to crots nor to Ferrari [= ‘something especially outstanding/impressive/desirable of its kind’], used here to describe the spectacular trick performed by Charlotte Worthington in winning the Olympic BMX Freestyle gold medal. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to note that an equally exclusive Italian sports car – Maserati – conveys an identical notion in the 1972 Monty Python bus conductor sketch, in which Graham Chapman delivers the punchline to a joke followed by ‘Boom! Boom! Every one a Maserati!’. Finally, even a blind squirrel finds a nut [= ‘even if people are ineffective/misguided, they’re still sometimes correct by sheer luck’] is recorded in the Cambridge International Dictionary, although several online forums suggest acorn for nut.
Most of this year’s entries are captured in the British Library’s Newspaper collections, National Radio Archive and UK Web Archive, proving the Library is an invaluable resource for monitoring vernacular language. And so, after much deliberation, I’m delighted to announce this year’s winner is batter - in recognition of what it represents in terms of a more inclusive future and in the hope that England might find one or two in time for the second Ashes Test!
Follow Spoken English collections at @VoicesofEnglish.