Reporting on sporting clichés and metaphors

Since my last report on activities at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve written several articles there about words and language. Time for a quick recap. March was the website’s month of sporting English. Coming from a family of sports enthusiasts (and having played a lot myself), I enjoyed exploring various aspects of sporting lingo.

In Be a sport about clichés, I take issue with Edwin Newman’s lament that there is “no way to measure the destructive effect of sports broadcasting on ordinary American English”, and I offer a partial defence of clichés and sports commentary in general:

When the umpteenth soccer pundit (typically a former player) tells us it’s a “game of two halves”, we might sigh wearily, grudgingly acknowledge the validity of this tired truism, or idly wish there were a fresh way of saying it, or more ways of not saying it at all.

Perhaps even more reviled is “at the end of the day”. This throwaway idiom is also popular with politicians – Irish ones, anyway – and means something between “ultimately” and nothing whatsoever. Its versatility and existential vagueness might be partly why it’s so commonly used: novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has defended it as “very deep” and “very close to reflecting the human condition”.

Next up is an article about the word goal: I briefly explore its origins and semantics, and I recall my childhood confusion over the meaning of hat trick, born of my inability to sensibly interpret a frame of the comic strip Billy’s Boots.

Stepping temporarily into a different field of play, I address the matter of linguistic register and “code switching”, especially in the interactions of students and professors. Is it appropriate, I wonder, to begin a semi-formal email with the words “Hey Professor”?

There’s a lot going on in and around a word. This is shown clearly in the image below, which is a slide from Michael Rundell’s presentation on language technology and lexicography:

Using the word word as an example, in the post In a word I take a closer look at the fuzzy edges and multiple possibilities of a word, showing how in many cases

word doesn’t mean “a word” so much as a number of words that convey a certain kind of message. This is an example of metonymy, where a word or phrase is used to refer to something with which it has a close semantic relationship – to transfer a concept to an adjacent domain, as linguist Guy Deutscher put it (metaphor involves transfer to a distant domain). Along the same lines, we sometimes use tongue as a metonym for speech and language.

These sorts of metaphors are so commonplace, they are likely to pass us by unless we foster the habit of noticing them. On Twitter recently I posted a link to an article on metaphor by Diane Nicholls, called “What we talk about when we talk about words and language”. It generated a lot of interest, and it’s easy to see why.

Back to the sporting series. Blunt as a bag of wet mice is my post about the very original commentating style of Ray Hudson. Such is his passion for soccer, he often forgoes balance and calm for an excited flood of superlatives and strange similes, producing such quotable gems as “happy as a banjo player” and “like a big werewolf with a plate of liver in front of it”.

Appropriately enough, April is the month of metaphorical English at Macmillan. Sports and metaphors make a good team, but why do some sports generate more metaphors than others? Does it have more to do with class than popularity? This page conveniently gathers articles and resources on metaphor; I’ll be adding to it over the next few weeks, and all my archived articles are available here.


8 Responses to Reporting on sporting clichés and metaphors

  1. John Cowan says:

    As someone or other said, at the end of the day we all have to get up in the morning.

  2. James Brown says:

    I’m not the stuffy professor type, and I teach at a working class university, but still “Hey Professor” in a semi-formal correspondence isn’t appropriate. Teachers and professors need to keep a professional distance from their students, and “hey” strikes me as a little too friendly. On sports cliches, one that gets me is a coach saying he wants his players (collegiate style wrestlers for my sons)to give a “hundred and ten-percent” effort. It doesn’t get better than a hundred, yes?

  3. Stan says:

    John: Sooner or later it dawns on us all.

    James: I’m inclined to agree. Unless it’s made clear that “Hey…” is acceptable, it seems too casual to me. The hyperbolic paradox of “110%” amuses me. I suppose you could say that anyone who gives 110% could care less. But that’s another can of troublesome worms.

  4. wisewebwoman says:

    Thanks for the intro to “Twig” Stan – I can’t seem to get back to your previous post for some reason (possibly a bad case of the stupids).
    “At the end of the day” is making my internal tolerance meter explode lately. I hear it far too many times, much like “comparing apples and oranges” a few years ago. People seem to get hold of these phrases and overuse. I try and avoid them if at all possible.
    Aside: I’ll be back on the auld sod very shortly and will throw a glance at Galway as I fly over.

  5. I have no idea why people take umbrage at the expression “a game of two halves”. It is merely a statement of fact (except when there is extra time and penalties)

    If football were a game on one playing period then we would have very tired players

  6. Stan says:

    WWW: I think overuse has a lot to do with what makes these phrases so annoying, at least to some people. The same way ubiquitous “like” drives people up the wall. As you say, people get hold of these words and phrases and can’t seem to avoid using them to excess.
    Have a safe trip and a lovely visit. I’ll wave up if I spot you.

    Jams: Because it’s a cliché, I suppose. A worn-out, hackneyed expression. But you’re right: it’s just a statement of fact, and it’s often used to indicate that the two halves of a game were, or could be, very different from each other (and without having to say all that).

  7. David Craig says:

    When push comes to shove “at the end of the day” isn’t any worse than a lot of other clichés that barely rate a shrug.

  8. Stan says:

    David: Yes, it’s not worth getting too worked up over. Orwell’s much-quoted rule about stale expressions (“Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print”) is a helpful general guideline, but adhering to it strictly would be impractical and unreasonable.

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