Out-physicalled and out-verbed

After a rugby match between Ireland and Samoa over the weekend, I heard the analyst Conor O’Shea say the following about the Irish team’s performance:

We were out-physicalled.

That’s a novel verbing, I thought. Then I realised it had almost certainly been coined before, no doubt in a sporting context. Sure enough, searching for the phrase online, I found many reported instances of its use – usually in reference to a team sport like rugby, football/soccer, American football, or ice hockey. For example:

“We were out-physicalled and out-toughed,” said Smith (Lansing State Journal)

“It was all up front, we were just out-physicalled,” said Washington State coach Paul Wulff. “That was probably the first time this year where we got that physicalled.” (Seattle Times)

“I don’t think anybody’s really out-physicalled us — and I don’t know if that’s even a word — until today in the first half,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. (News Observer)

“We got out-physicalled a little bit. If we get out-physicalled by Menasha, it’s going to be a close game.” (Post Crescent)

The Buffaloes, no matter how inspired they may be are simply going to be out coached, out physicalled and out willed in this match up. (Clone Chronicles)

“I think we were just outplayed and out-physicalled and out-everythinged,” Kempe said. (The Dartmouth)

“They out-executed us, outplayed us, out-physicalled us, out-coached us,” Stoops said. (San Jose Mercury News)

The International Division championship game for the Chevron Cup was perhaps even more physical, as the Tokyo Canadians “out-physicalled” EHC Affoltern en route to a 4-1 win. (Chiangmai Mail)

The last quote dates from November 2002, showing that out-physicalled has already been around a while; and in the phrase “even more physical” it offers a clue to the term’s derivation. Sports discussions often include expressions like “It was a very physical game” and “They’re a very physical side [team]”. Physical in this sense is shorthand for physically strong, tough, or demanding.

To be out-physicalled, then, means that your opponents have the edge in terms of physical force or performance. Sports journalist Chris Rattue pointed out its euphemistic possibilities in a New Zealand Herald article in June last year:

My favourite new word, or is it two words, is out-physicalled. It is a nice way of saying you got beaten up on the footy field.

Other noteworthy (but unverified) quotes I found include Terry Venables’ tautological remark: “Physically, they’ve out-physicalled them”; and Chris Hughes’ rule-busting set: “Mill River beat up on us. They out-physicalled us and out-sized us and out-quicked us in just about every facet of the game.”

It’s interesting how often out-physicalled is used as part of a pair or longer series of out-verbings. Something about the rhythm of these sentences seems to invite such constructions; they’re almost like a chant or a slogan. And the adjective physical isn’t just getting verbed – it has been inflected to form a comparative adjective:

He was bigger, stronger, physicaler at the point of attack. (News Observer blog)

More physical would be the normal comparative adjective phrase here, but the meaning of physicaler is clear, despite its irregularity.

Though sports commentary and punditry sometimes plumb the desperate shallows of cliché and tedium, they can also be a rich and amusing source of linguistic invention. Coupled with enthusiasm and insight, they can render an analyst’s observations more entertaining than the sport itself.

Update: Ben Zimmer wrote an excellent article about out-physical on his Word Routes blog at the Visual Thesaurus back in October 2008. The phrase is even older than I thought. Much older…


12 Responses to Out-physicalled and out-verbed

  1. MikeH says:

    This reminds me of a blazing row I once had with a colleague about the word “winningest”, i.e. meaning the most successful team in terms of matches won. E.g.: “Chelsea are currently the winningest team in the Premiership with 9.”

    I think this is pretty standard in US English, especially in baseball where winning percentages are the be-all and end-all, but rarely heard in UK. I like it anyway!

  2. Now that is a term I have never come across before but then I am not a big reader of sports journalism…

    I take it that it is loosely related to a Corkonian construct like “we played like langers”

  3. Stan says:

    Mike: Winningest does seem more of a U.S. term, but I was surprised to learn that it’s apparently been around since 1804! I think that between you and your colleague, you were the winninger of the two.

    Jams: Most of the examples I saw were of reported speech rather than from the journalists’ own vocabularies. Evocative as “we played like langers” is, I don’t think it’s too closely related: a team might play very well and still be out-physicalled.

  4. Ah Stan I had my tongue in my cheek with langers!

  5. Stan says:

    Sorry, Jams! I out-literalled myself there.

  6. Fran says:

    I think I am probably out-physicalled by just about everyone else in the universe. It’s a great word. I intend to use it.

  7. wisewebwoman says:

    You out-intelligent me every single time, Stan.

    As to *off topic* “langers” – this always meant “drunk” to me, a Corkonian. Outlangering has enormous appeal, I must admit.


  8. Stan says:

    Fran: Knowing your fondness for novel compound phrases, I wouldn’t be surprised if you out-neologised us all, sports coaches included.

    WWW: I’ve heard langers used commonly in two or three ways. ‘Drunk’, like you say, is one; langered works here too. As a noun it’s a popular term of abuse, as in Jams’ example. The latter might be related to its other, anatomical meaning — so I’d be mindful of context before using a form of outlanger!

  9. Val Erde says:

    I’m curious to know how long these newish word forms/combinations will last. A few years, a few months? It seems that they come and go so fast that our language is a verbal moving pavement.

    Anyway… how about a psychic version of the above:

    …the ghosts were out-psychicalled on their cycle-awls on their out-reach course where they had to jump through hoops of anti-matter and green slime.

  10. Stan says:

    Val: I’m curious about that too. Out-physicalled has been around for a few decades, but its usage is likely to remain modest — and limited to occasional sporting remarks. No word ever fully disappears, though. Thanks for your your playful psychic version!

  11. John Cowan says:

    This construction with out- is one of the bits of evidence that English is not a context-free language. The fact that we can create arbitrarily long versions of it, such as to out-James-James-Morrison-Morrison-Weatherby-George-Dupree James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree, but that this is ungrammatical if you leave out any one of the four tokens of James, makes it impossible to fully parse English with a finite amount of resources.

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