Rise of the Invincibles – and the ‘dribbling game’

November 28, 2016

Having grown up on the football comic Roy of the Rovers and similar strips, I was excited to hear that a friend of mine was writing his own – a comic book history of the early days of the English football league and the famous FA Cup.

Michael Barrett’s Preston North End: The Rise of the Invincibles was published this month, and I had the pleasure of doing some editing work on it. The book’s focus is on Preston North End FC, the first team to win the league and cup ‘double’, but the background is rich in period details of late-19C England: social reform, the cotton mills that inspired Dickens, and home and street life:


The artist is David Sque, best known for illustrating some of the original Roy of the Rovers strips, so the style and tone will have nostalgic appeal for readers of that generation. Rise of the Invincibles captures the excitement on and off the pitch as the new sport of football (‘the dribblin’ game’) develops and turns professional and its early stars become local legends.

The book also has elements of linguistic interest, not least the Lancashire dialect used here and there throughout. It’s quite prominent on this page:

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Language dream files: the speech balloon

July 20, 2016

I had another language-related dream a few nights ago. The last time I remember this happening, my sleeping mind conjured a weird connection between raccoons and the word chiefly.

This time, I dreamt I kicked a rubber ball at a door, my grandmother suddenly opened the door, and the ball got pronged on the pointy tail of a speech balloon near her head. Then we laughed, the way you do out of delight when something physically strange happens.

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Departing wisdom

November 18, 2014
*[click to enlarge]

irish times headline typo - Wayne Rooney departs [imparts] wisdom to youth


It took me a moment to figure out this headline in today’s Irish Times. I wondered if it might be a novel or obscure sense of depart in sports journalism that had escaped my notice to date, before realising it was probably supposed to be impart. The article supports this analysis.

To impart is to pass on or transmit, to communicate or disclose, to bestow. One often imparts wisdom. To depart is to leave: a train departs a station. Depart from can mean deviate from (a normal or recommended course of action): the headline departs from intelligibility.

John McIntyre, in The Old Editor Says, warns that errors lurk in the big type and imparts the following wisdom: “Always give the big type a second or third look before publication.” Be on guard, too, for departing wisdom when parting wisdom is meant.

Google returns a few examples of “departs wisdom”, each seemingly intended to mean imparts wisdom, but none so prominent as this. I expect it will crop up again sooner or later.

[Hat-tip to Ultan Cronin for the link. For more like this, see my archive of posts about headlines.]

Reporting on sporting clichés and metaphors

April 4, 2011

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.

Out-physicalled and out-verbed

November 15, 2010

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…