16 December 2022
BL Sports Word of the Year 2022
Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:
A fortnight ago, I stumbled across BBC football correspondent, Ian Dennis, playing Radio 5 Live's World Cup Bauble Challenge with Breakfast presenters, Rachel Burden and Rick Edwards. While the game itself was mildly diverting, I was more intrigued to hear – in the space of about three minutes airtime – the acronyms VAR [= ‘(football) video assistant referee’], TMO [= ‘(rugby) television match official’] and DRS [= ‘(cricket) decision review system’]. The existence of the terms reflects the increasing reliance of professional sport on technology and additional off-field experts to assist with on-field decisions; their use in this light-hearted exchange shows just how quickly they’ve permeated mainstream discourse. A few days previously I’d read a column in the Guardian in which Adrian Chiles dismissed sporting jargon as baffling and off-putting to the uninitiated, so I assume he'd have found that conversation really annoying. For me, though, it provided another set of entries in my growing list of vernacular English gleaned from the mainstream sporting press and media.
With various dictionaries announcing their 2022 Word of The Year – Collins plumped for permacrisis, while the rather more left field goblin mode emerged from Oxford’s public vote – it also reminded me it was time for an annual review of the linguistic highlights I’ve collected over the last twelve months. Here, then, are the ten nominees for the 8th unofficial British Library Sports Word of The Year (SWOTY 2022):
April (Mary Earps introducing demonstration of technique for executing accurate, long-range, drop-kick clearance, BBC Online): we’re gonna do some zing zingers sidewinders
May (Peter Crouch discussing tactic of player lying down behind defensive wall at free kicks, That Peter Crouch Podcast): I’d be a helluva good draught excluder
June (Michael Atherton of Ollie Pope’s fielding position versus New Zealand, Sky Sports): Pope goes in to boot hill
July (Gabby Logan of Georgia Stanway goal versus Spain, BBC1): absolute blooter of a goal from Georgia Stanway
July (Isa Guha of David Willey hitting boundaries off first two balls of Hardik Pandya over, BBC2): David Willey fancies a little cheeky innings here
July (Rachael Burden interviewing Paul Farbrace about philosophy of new England coach Brendan McCullum, BBC Radio 5 Live): tell us about Bazball
August (Andy Hunter quoting Liverpool manager, Jürgen Klopp, reflecting on the importance of learning from experience, Guardian): I got washed with all kinds of water in my life
September (Simon Burnton of evolution of traditional nightwatchman role, Guardian): Broad […] was padded up and ready if necessary to play the role of free-hitting nighthawk
October (Aaron Bowyer of England’s women’s Rugby League team, Guardian): England aim to replicate the exploits of football’s Lionesses this summer, but they have competition from the Jillaroos
This year’s list perhaps inevitably focuses on three sports that held major international competitions in 2022 – football (women’s Euros and men’s World Cup), cricket (women’s World Cup and men’s T20 World Cup) and Rugby League (men’s, women’s and wheelchair World Cups). Two entries – Lionesses [= ‘England women’s football team’] and Jillaroos [= ‘Australia women’s Rugby League team’] – are nicknames for national teams in their respective sports. Both occur frequently in published articles and wider sporting discourse. Indeed some nicknames are so well established that they’re arguably more commonly used than the name of the country they denote – the All Blacks [= ‘New Zealand men’s Rugby Union team’] is probably the most obvious example. I’m not aware of any widely used equivalent for the England (or Scotland, Wales or Ireland) men’s Rugby Union team, although the England women’s team are frequently referred to as the Red Roses. Undisputed world champions in sporting nicknames (and many sports) must surely be Australia, whose particular fondness for the pseudo suffix <-roo> came to my attention this autumn. In a single week in late October/early November, Guardian articles featured the following monikers: Kangaroos [= ‘Australia men’s Rugby League team’]; Socceroos [= ‘Australia men’s football team’]; Jillaroos [= ‘Australia women’s Rugby League team’]; and the wonderfully creative Wheelaroos [= ‘Australia wheelchair Rugby League team’].
Rather disappointingly, there was a match report the same week about the Diamonds [= ‘Australia women’s netball team’] – might I suggest Catcharoos or Springaroos would be more compatible? Of this list, the Kangaroos and Jillaroos both became world champions and the Diamonds won the netball title at the Commonwealth Games or Commie Games as I heard several young hockey players call it – a hypocorism (i.e. affectionate diminutive form), which is a linguistic phenomenon at which Australians might also claim to be world champions.
Even more productive than <-roo> is the suffix <-ball>, captured here in the entry Bazball. The first element, Baz, is the nickname of the current England men’s Test cricket coach, Brendan McCullum. The suffix <-ball> is, I suspect, inspired by Moneyball, the title of a book and film celebrating a methodology devised by Oakland Athletics general manager, Billy Beane, the principle of which was to create a successful baseball team by prioritising statistical analysis over coaching ‘instinct’. The <-ball> suffix is now frequently attached to the name of an innovative coach or player as a convenient shorthand for a specific philosophy or tactical approach.
Although McCullum himself apparently dislikes the term, Bazball refers to what many observers consider a high-risk – and extremely entertaining – attacking approach to the more sedate form of cricket traditionally associated with Test matches. In this year’s Guardian, I’ve noted the following examples of this morphological process on at least one occasion: Pepball, Kloppball, Rangnickball, Farrellball, Wengerball, Bruceball, Viratball, Potterball, Josball. Sports fans will recognise the individual coaches or players referenced in each case; some are used positively (i.e. in praise of the exponent’s philosophy); others more negatively (i.e. criticising their approach). Where Bazball appears to be the implementation of a so-called ‘red-ball reset’ for men’s cricket in England, Josball might be considered the culmination of the equivalent ‘white-ball reset’ instigated by former captain, Eoin Morgan, and now modified by the present incumbent, Jos Buttler.
Another entry in this shortlist captures the essence of Bazball: nighthawk [= ‘batter sent in when a wicket falls shortly before close of play and instructed to make quick runs’]. The term nighthawk is clearly a play on the conventional cricketing wisdom of employing a nightwatchman in such circumstances [= ‘(lower order, i.e. non-specialist) batter sent in when a wicket falls shortly before close of play and instructed to play out time thereby reducing the risk of losing another specialist batter’]. The contrast between viewing the loss of a wicket towards close of play as a potential banana skin requiring a nightwatchman and seeing it as an opportunity to be exploited by a nighthawk somehow epitomises Bazball. Collins defines nighthawk as a synonym for night owl [= ‘someone who works more effectively late at night’]. In a cricketing context, then, the implication is that a nighthawk presumably relishes rather than fears batting in a pressurised situation at close of play. I also suspect the <-hawk> element implies the sense of the US English metaphor, hawks and doves, in that hawks advocate an aggressive response to a perceived threat, while doves favour a conciliatory (i.e. defensive) approach.
Three entries here are sporting jargon (i.e. specialised vocabulary used by, or at least familiar to, players and fans of a given sport, but probably incomprehensible to outsiders). These are zinger (aka sidewinder) [= (of goalkeeper) ‘sideways drop-kick volleyed clearance or pass’]; draught excluder [= ‘footballer who lies down behind defensive wall at free-kick’]; and boot hill [= ‘forward short leg’ (i.e. fielding position extremely close to batter)]. Zinger is defined as ‘something outstanding’ and generally attributed to US English, while Merriam-Webster defines sidewinder as ‘a heavy swinging blow from the side’. Mary Earp’s use here refers to a clearance, kicked from the hand in which the torso and leg of the kicking foot is almost horizontal to the ground at impact. Goalkeepers increasingly use this technique rather than the more ‘traditional’ drop-kick in which the ball is punted vertically in the air. The sidewinder is considered more accurate and thus allows the modern goalkeeper to initiate play rather than simply clear the ball hopefully upfield. A draught excluder placed at the foot of a door to prevent cold air entering a room is something we’re all probably familiar with – especially this winter. Often slightly playful in design, they bear an uncanny resemblance to the bizarre sight of a footballer lying down behind a defensive wall at a free kick. This tactic has emerged in recent years in response to goals occasionally resulting from free kicks intentionally directed beneath a defensive wall on the assumption that players in the wall invariably jump to present a taller barrier.
Oxford records boot hill as a humorous term in US English for ‘a place where people are buried’. Its meaning in cricket captures the gallows humour implicit in a fielding position that carries an increased risk of serious injury. While mainstream dictionaries record the more conventional meanings of all three, their use in sporting contexts is clearly relatively recent as they’re less widely documented: Collins includes draught excluder as a ‘new word suggestion’; sidewinder occurs frequently in online platforms, notably in video clips of the phenomenon; while boot hill merits an entry in Michael Rundell’s Dictionary of Cricket (1995).
Two terms here aren’t exclusive to sporting discourse: blooter [= ‘impressive hit/kick (esp. of ball)’] and cheeky [= ‘enjoyable and unexpected’]. Both occur in other informal contexts, so might be considered slang (i.e. informal forms), although there is an argument to consider the former as dialect (i.e. a localised form) as it’s most commonly associated with Scotland, as confirmed by the Scots Language Centre. It’s a little ironic that Gabby Logan – born in England of Welsh heritage but, crucially perhaps, married to a Scotsman – chose a Scots form, blooter, to describe an England goal. The form cheeky – often, as here, combined with little – is particularly common among younger speakers of British English. It typically implies a spontaneous, slightly self-indulgent act, as demonstrated in common collocations such as a cheeky pint or a cheeky Nandos (compare the older comparable form crafty fag for an illicit cigarette). This sense of cheeky is confirmed by an entry in Macmillan and is also the subject of a wonderful linguistic study.
The final entry simply reflects my own personal fascination, as a former teacher of German, with (i) idioms that are, if not untranslatable, offer no obvious equivalent in English; and (ii) Kloppisms (i.e. the musings of Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp). Reflecting on Liverpool’s uncharacteristically slow start to this season, Klopp translated the German idiom, mit allen Wassern gewaschen, almost verbatim as (to be) washed with all kinds of water [= ‘to know all the tricks in the book’]. Duden simply defines the phrase as ‘clever’, but it conveys something much more along the lines of possessing ‘know-how’, ‘cunning’, ‘experience’ and ‘a trick or two up one’s sleeve’.
As with previous years, most of this year’s entries are captured in the British Library’s Newspaper collections, National Radio Archive and UK Web Archive, demonstrating how the Library’s collections document the diversity and continued evolution of the English language.
And now it’s time to announce the winner. Given the extraordinary events in successive home Tests against New Zealand and India this summer and the remarkable Test series in Pakistan, in any other year Bazball would have been a shoo-in. However, England women’s football triumph this summer at Wembley was even more impressive, so the clear winner, both of the Euros and of SWOTY 2022, is Lionesses.
Follow Spoken English collections at @VoicesofEnglish.