Origins of phrases 2: Sport & games

men playing baseball

Origins of phrases 2: Sport & games

It is interesting that some widely used phrases have their origins in sport. Here are just a few of these.

‘Grand slam’ It refers to winning each group in a sporting major championship or matches in a sport in a year, often used in connection with golf or tennis. In the card game bridge in refers to the bidding and winning of all thirteen tricks and in baseball is a home run hit when each of the three bases is occupied by a runner, thereby scoring four runs. The phrase is said to have originated in bridge: the American journalist Allison Danzig introduced the term grand slam from the card game to the sporting arena, when referring to the achievement by the Australian Donald Budge in 1938.

‘Hit for six’ is an expression originating from the game of cricket and refers to the scoring of six runs when the ball is hit over the boundary without first touching the ground, perhaps even into the crowd of spectators. There are numerous references to this phrase in print from the 1840s.

The expression was later used figuratively towards the mid-twentieth century to mean having the stuffing knocked out of you through a physical or emotional trial or shock.

‘Level playing field’ means fair competition in a game or negotiation with no advantage to either side. It was known in the USA by 1988 and regarded in Britain as a cliché by the 1990s.

‘Not by a long chalk’ means ‘not by any means’ or far from the truth. The chalk referred to is the chalk used for scoring in pub games (for instance darts) and at horse races (e.g. on-course bookmakers marking up betting odds). It originated from Canada in the nineteenth century but first became commonplace in England. The variant from the United States would be ‘not by a long shot’.

‘Step up to the plate’ is an expression deriving from American baseball and means entering the batter’s box in order to take their turn to bat. The ‘plate’ is in fact a real plate marking the batter’s position. In more general terms it means to accept responsibility or meet a challenge.

‘Throw your hat in the ring’ means to make, pick up, or accept a challenge, or demonstrate a willingness to join an enterprise. It is thought to date to times when a challenge to a prize-fighter at a fairground or fair was delivered in this manner. The ring would have been a boxing ring, which would have been a circular space surrounded by the onlooking crowd rather than a square, raised boxing ‘ring’ as at present.

‘Throw in the towel’ is to give up when facing certain defeat to avoid additional punishment or suffering, or to give up something in disgust or frustration. It was the traditional gesture of the losing participant in a boxing match. The phrase was certainly known by 1915.