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…