Small pleasures: The language of football

Sarah Winterburn

We’re now at what is colloquially known as the ‘business end’ of the season, which has always struck me as something of a misnomer. Surely, traditionally, the business end of the season is right at the very beginning, before the season even starts? That’s when clubs do their transfers and loans and money-spinning overseas tours…you know, the actual business bit.

And while we’re on it, why are players who are out on loan referred to as ‘loanees’? By any conventional usage of the word, the club who loans the player out is the lender, the club receiving the player is the loanee, and the player is the loan itself.

Meanwhile, we have football clubs taking the plural in British English (‘Liverpool are not very good at football’), while elsewhere in the world they take the more sensible and consistent singular, albeit with a difference in what the sport is actually called (‘Liverpool is not very good at soccer’).

We chide officials for a lack of consistency, but how can we expect them to do anything with certainty when football insists on calling the very foundations of everyday language into question?

Entire dictionaries could and indeed have been made just to document the weird little bits of jargon that litter football’s vocabulary. Adam Hurrey has done it best, but it’s also impossible to overlook Leigh & Woodhouse’s excellent Football Lexicon. Yet there are still many commonplace events in sport that are yet to be assigned names, at least in the English-speaking world.

Why do we have single-word names for the Panenka and the rabona, and arguably even for shots that go in off the underside of the crossbar (these, of course, are Yeboahs, at least when I was growing up).

Yet we are forced to use the cumbersome ‘shots off target’ or ‘lofted through ball’? Why do we have a common word for nutmegs and can be said to ’round’ a goalkeeper, but dribbling past a defender takes four words, at least in non-technical usage?

On the flipside, however, we are woefully inadequate in some areas. For example, if I tell you that a player has just flicked the ball, what do I mean? Have they done a donkey-kick, a first-time backheel, a rabona, a tiny little chip, or even a glancing header? It could be any of these, or any number of other things besides.

This may simply be a result of the inherent conservatism of English football. It is perhaps telling that we have the words ‘hoof’ and ‘punt’ and ‘row Z’, but more intricate touches leave us scrambling. We still use ‘centre-half’ and ‘full-back’ for the positions in the back four, despite neither position bearing any relation to the ones those names denoted in the original 2-3-5 formation.

This isn’t just nothing. Language is important to the way we understand the world, to the point that we are seemingly only capable of distinguishing between colours if we are able to name them. By keeping the antiquated ‘full-back’ – a player who is as often the furthest man forward as the furthest man back in the modern game – but rejecting terms like ‘double pivot’ and ‘trequarista’ as pretentious, we may genuinely be seriously damaging our understanding of the game.

Nevertheless, there is plenty to enjoy in the language of football. There is barely a phrase in English more giddily evocative than the term ‘jumpers for goalposts’, while ‘bouncebackability’ and ‘squeaky bum time’ are wonderful additions that can now be found in and around the wider lexicon. If anything it’s done it too well, at the end of the day.

Steven Chicken – follow him on Twitter here