Linguistic Gymnastics: Sports Lingo for the Grammatically Impaired

People who don’t want to learn grammar or spelling like to say that languages grow and change with common usage. These people are called linguistic descriptivists. At least for now. Next week they’ll likely want to be called “flowerpot lemon drops” and they’ll petition the Oxford English Dictionary to add that definition to its next edition. Eventually the OED will just throw its hand up in the air and say, “Sure, just go ahead and say whatever you want. We’ll know what you mean.”

Sports commentators in particular are on the cutting edge of linguistic evolution, in that they like to use words that really do exist but in ways that have nothing to do with their actual definitions. Here are a few terms or phrases with special definitions in the sports world:

Physicality: The term physicality has been around since the 16th century. It originally meant “the state or quality of being physical” (as opposed to made-up or spiritual or whatever). It does not (or at least did not) mean “the state or quality of being a super-duper tough guy,” which is what it seems sports announcers think they’re saying when the use it now. So when a sports announcer says that an athlete is playing with physicality, they’re likely accurate, because they’re almost certainly talking about someone who actually exists in the physical realm. They’re just not saying what they think they’re saying.

High Motor: So far as I can tell, this term is used to describe an athlete who is not actually that talented, but who works hard. Also, he has taken a fistful of amphetamines and is running around the locker room like a four-year-old on espresso.

Moving left to right on your radio dial: This is the “Pull my finger…” of the radio sports announcer’s world. It’s a sly little joke that every football, basketball, and hockey radio announcer likes to slide in early in a game to set the stage, and it stinks. It’s always followed by a slight pause, as if to allow you, the listener, a moment to think, “It’s funny because I can’t see the game on the radio!”

Battling: This means “trying hard.” A person who is not battling is lollygagging.

Impact Player: You hear this term used to describe an athlete whose presence influences a game. Maybe this is nitpicking, but impact is not an adjective, it’s a noun and a verb. It would be like describing someone who is fast as a run person.

Gamer: This single word is amazing—a true linguistic feat—because it could be used to describe both a grown man who plays Dungeons and Dragons in his parents’ basement and a really gritty professional athlete. Likely not at the same time.

Running Downhill: This term describes a running back in football who wastes no time “hitting the hole” in the defensive line.

Hitting the Hole: C’mon, people. Grow up.

Gym rat with intangibles, real character guy: This is how a TV basketball analyst assesses any white player.

Athletic, explosive natural talent: This is how a TV basketball analyst assesses any black player.

Matriculating the ball down the field: Here’s a phrase that you hear a lot, and it’s a rare instance where we can pinpoint the first use of a completely made-up definition to a pre-existing word that already had its own perfectly good definitions. In 1969, Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram was caught on microphone telling his players to “just keep matriculating the ball down the field, boys.” He really could have said anything there—”Time to anthropomorphize the grass clippings, boys”—and sports commentators would have started using the phrase.

Organ-EYE-zation: This is a Canadian term that means “hockey team.”

Literally: Misuse of this word is not limited to the sports world by any stretch, but it’s certainly abused enough in sports to warrant mention here. Literally means actually, so when you hear a sports announcer say, “The Royals are literally crushing the Yankees tonight,” you either are witness to a horrible crime, or an announcer has used the word incorrectly. Also, your radio is really old, because the Royals have been terrible for a while. Sometimes, you’ll hear an athlete say that he “literally gave 110 percent.” This will make you want to stab yourself in the neck with a fork, or, if you’re thinking on your feet, stab the athlete in the neck with a fork.

Dick Butkus: Why do football announcers use this obviously made-up expression? It’s crude, and I don’t even know what it means.

I Can Do Bad All by Myself: Turns out this is a Tyler Perry movie. I assumed it was some distortion of the language caused by sports people. Carry on. There’s nothing to see here.

That’s it for now. I’m glad you gave 110 percent and battled through this impact blog post.

  • Jeff Waggett

    My biggest pet peeve is that sportscasters think saying “utilize” instead of “use” makes them sound smart–but they have no idea that there’s a difference in meaning. They will try to make the point that a team is not throwing the ball to their wide receivers enough by saying “they need to utilize their wide receivers more”, instead of the correct “use their wide receivers more”. Something that is deployed as intended is “used”, but deploying something for a different purpose than intended is “utilized”. When the Patriots suffered a ton of injuries to their secondary and had wide receivers fill in as cornerbacks, they were forced to “utilize their wide receivers” in the secondary.

    I just nerded out big time. Wow.

  • Phil Broder

    How about football players who run “north and south”? Even when they might actually be going east or west.

    And the HOF Detroit Tigers radio broadcaster, the late Ernie Harwell, always used to say things like, “That foul ball was caught by a fan from Hazel Park…”, and I spent my entire childhood trying to figure out how in the world Ernie knew where everyone in the stadium lived, or if maybe he had teams of helpers who would instantly swarm to a foul ball catcher to ask where they were from and then radio it to Ernie.

  • Jeff Waggett

    Another one: “Un-BELIEVE-able!” You know, because it’s impossible to accept that a professional baseball player might hit a home run at a key point in a game. Whodathunk THAT was possible?

  • Tom Davies

    I’ve heard it said that the only things properly impacted are bowels and wisdom teeth. The unfortunate use of impact as a verb stems, I believe, from people being too lazy to distinguish between affect and effect. I know I’m swimming against the current on this one.

  • Joyce

    It’s like fingernails on a chalk board everytime I hear “at about” or “at around.” My high school English teacher drove that point home very well. “At” is definite and “about” or “around” is indefinite. So when the football is “at about” the 10 yard line is it definitely on the 10 yard line or maybe somewhere near the 10 yard line or maybe it’s just definitely somewhere on the field of play? Ok, so I’m easily confused. Loved the article Paul.

  • Are you literally a “gamer,” or are you literally a “blogger?”

    PS – When referencing a baseball (well not real baseball) team in NY, the correct terminology and grammar is, “No-Good Stinkin’ Yankees.

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