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The art of talking a good game

Blackpool manager Ian Holloway
Blackpool boss Ian Holloway has a unique turn of phrase

By Tim Franks, BBC Radio 4 Today programme

Sport has its own language: it is not just the jargon of bogeys and bouncers. It is also the imagery of educated left feet, and giant-killing.

Now, as part of a major exhibition investigating the roots and evolution of the English language the British Library has hosted an evening devoted to the Language of Sport.

The charge list is clear.

Sport is overheated, its puffers overexcited. The words which we sports enthusiasts use can lurch from inane to incomprehensible.

But sport can also create and shape the words of everyday speech. Take the American sport of raccoon hunting. As Julie Yau from the British Library points out, long ago it left us barking up the wrong tree.

Martin Kelner, sports columnist at The Guardian newspaper, defends the sporting cliche as a font of colour.

"If a striker misses a lot of opportunities to score, he'll be said to have missed a 'hatful' of chances.

"In no other area of life is a hatful a measure," argues Kelner. "Nobody goes into a shop and says, 'I'll have a hatful of apples' - so clearly some of it is quite inventive."

Those involved in sport often grope for imagery because that is all there is. Sport - like music, like art, dare it be said, like life - deals in the abstract. It is about feeling. And Ian Holloway is the bard.

As long ago as 2003, Holloway was driving, full tilt, up metaphorical cul-de-sacs. He was then boss of QPR, and had just presided over a drab victory against Chesterfield. Interviewed after the game, inspiration struck.

"A win's a win," he said - luring us into a false expectation of homilies to come. "To put it in gentleman's terms, if you go out on the night and you're looking for a young lady, and you pull one - you know, some weeks they're good-looking, and some weeks they're not the best."

There is more. "She wasn't the best-looking lady we've ended up taking home, but she was very pleasant, very nice, and thanks very much - let's have a coffee." Never again will an ugly three points feel the same.

And then there is the very fact that sport is pointless. That is why we love it. Darts demands florid language because otherwise you just have two men and six compass points.

The Victorians hoped to shape our very mores with the phrase "It's just not cricket." Given the latest investigation by the International Cricket Council, the thought probably would not work

In the words of Andy Zaltzman, comedian and sports blogger, the commentators can hardly be expected to effuse over the parabola each dart describes.

Enter Sid Waddell. As long ago as 1986, Eric Bristow did not just score one hundred and eiiiiiighty. He "smacked in….a psychological body blow". Since then, the well still has not run dry.

"You could hear a blob of vinegar drop on a chip in this hall," remains a favourite.

There is a downside. The language of sport can also be a trap. Thankfully, most of us, won't be, literally, gutted.

But John Leigh, Cambridge academic, Voltaire expert, and author of three sporting lexicons, finds that even he, sometimes, is enmeshed.

Marking essays, he says, he will sometimes tell the student "you're a bit tactically naïve", or that they showed "good approach play but lacked quality in the final third".

"There is a danger," Leigh says, "that this celebrated language of 'over the moon' which we deride, we nevertheless are not entirely in control of. There is a danger of what you imitate, you soon become."

But there is a lure far worse. It is the collision of politics and PR and power. Sport is not the driver. But it is the mirror. And it reflects absolutely nothing.

The young Jordanian potentate Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein won election, earlier this month, to Fifa's executive committee, as the new Asian vice-president of football's governing body. As part of his campaign, he released a promotional video.

The platitudes are presented on a bed of violins: "I am running, because it is time for change. It is time to work together as one continent united. I am running because I believe our youth, men and women, can move our continent forward."

Graeme McDowell
McDowell's putt was one of the vital moments of the match

But while that lingo can be the dementors' kiss, other sporting words can make your hair tingle and your spine bristle. It can teach the power of image, of clarity, of rhythm, of cadence.

Last year, Graeme McDowell had to hole an awkward putt on the 16th green to bring the Ryder Cup within the grasp of all Europe.

John Murray was holding the microphone.

He begins in a low, respectful rumble. He is holding his mic close, trying not to break the silence enveloping the golfer. The mic is so close that it picks up a sigh from the commentator's nostrils.

"McDowell: we've got such a good view of him here. And as he walked towards us, he just - puffed his cheeks out (pause) and blew (pause) and now steps up for the putt: this is for birdie and to win the hole and go two up with two to play."

Silence. "He has to putt through his own shadow. This warm October sunshine."

Longer silence. "And McDowell, now." Silence. "Rolls the ball towards the hole. (And now louder, as the shouts of the crowd around him grow).


There was a time, when reference to sport was intended to elevate our being.

The Victorians hoped to shape our very mores with the phrase "It's just not cricket." Given the latest investigation by the International Cricket Council, the thought probably would not work.

There is, instead, perhaps a simpler and happier reason that sporting language has such reach. It is that sport, despite - maybe because of its unimportance - still holds us in its grip.

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