A Carnival of Sporting Clichés

While discussing sports related brain injuries, Canterbury Bulldogs captain James Graham commented recently, without irony or attempt at humour: “For me, concussion is such a grey area”.

The wordsmith and intellectual all-rounder Stephen Fry believes true identity resides in language. When another rugby league prop Jeff Lima uttered the words: “I put my head down, bum up, did the hard yards, and worked my arse off” there was no doubt as to his true identity, and the special group to which he belonged.
Given the very physical nature of their enterprise, it’s not surprising that feet and movement feature prominently in the language of sportsmen. ‘Putting your best foot forward’ is very popular as is ‘stepping up’, ‘filling someone else’s boots’ and ‘keeping on your toes’.

Nor is it surprising to hear physical injuries being used to describe mental setbacks: “You can’t get a bigger kick in the guts than being told you have brain damage”, said a UFC combatant with brain scarring who got the biggest emotional kick in the guts by taking repeated blows to the head.

Other body parts are given game-time [sorry about that] and there is the interesting use of “doing” for damaging. ‘Doing a hammy’ and ‘quad’, have been joined recently by ‘doing a glute’. There are the metaphors ‘copping a kick in the guts’, and ‘copping it on the chin’ too.

There are no qualms over borrowing from other sports: non baseballers use phrases like ‘stepping up to the plate’, ‘on the canvas’, and ‘champing at the bit’ with gay abandon [sorry again].

Inter-sport phrasing eventually leads to the absurdity of a metaphor being used that is literally true such as a jockey announcing his intention to take control with: “I’m taking the reins”.

When Canberra Raiders’ prop Brett White was asked what weight he intended to play at, he replied: “I’ll have to weigh it up”. After buying Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas, Super League coach Brian Noble said: “He brings a wealth of experience that you just can’t buy”.

With all these expressions flying about it’s easy to choose the wrong one, as (another league forward) Ben Cross once did: “But I know what I’ve done in my career, and what I’ve put myself through to get to where I’ve got, so until they’ve actually done that, their word isn’t really worth a grain of salt”. (I had been expecting “a piece of sh*t”).

The most prolific users of sporting language , of course, are journalists, although to be fair, after more than one hundred years of rugby league correspondence, originality is a difficult task..

Sometimes they get it wrong like the Sydney Morning Herald describing Bronco Matt Gillett’s response to the news that his close friend had died after being punched in the head: “Gillett was stunned. His head was spinning.”

It’s wonderful that the inspiration for some of the more popular similes and metaphors in sport – like describing finals matches as cauldrons or pressure cookers – came from the kitchen. These two though have become a little outdated – cauldrons are ancient, and pressure cookers were in use when kitchens were tiled in pale green.

The Age’s Jake Niall, referring to the ordinary pool of players available during the recent AFL trade period remarked: “The car yards are filled with Cortinas and however much you spray them and wind back the speedo, they’re still Cortinas.”

We know what Niall means by his use of the Ford Cortina – the mid-sized, middling family sedan – as a metaphor for an average footballer but it ignores the fact that some of the earlier models were handy racing cars.

Cortinas with mag wheels and six cylinder engines were quite impressive machines – and lethal, as the family cat found out one day when she was run over by my brother’s souped-up powder blue TC while sunning herself in the driveway.

Poor Fifi, at the ripe old age of seventeen, burst like an overripe tomato as the low-profile Yokohamas ploughed a furrow through her.

It was visitors, not my brother, who discovered her an hour later. Like the characters in John Carpenter’s The Thing they were unsure of what they had come across. Staring at the congealing pulp they muttered: “What is it … is that a cat in there?”