The following is a list of phrases derived from sports which have become idioms (slang or otherwise) in English. They have evolved a usage and meaning independent of sports and are often used by those with little knowledge of these games.
The sport from which each phrase originates has been included immediately after the phrase. In some cases, the specific sport may not be known; these entries may be followed by the generic term Sports, or a slightly more specific term, such as Team sports (referring to such games as baseball, football, hockey, etc), Ball sports (baseball, tennis, volleyball, etc), etc.
Note on dictionaries
- AHD – American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
- AHDI – American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms
- CIDI – Cambridge International Dictionart of Slang
- OED – Oxford English Dictionary
- WNM – Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English
- the ball is in one's (or another's) court – Tennis: Responsibility now belongs to the person named; often in the sentence "The ball is in your court", i.e. it is now up to you. The term originates in tennis, where it means it is the other player's turn to serve the ball. OED dates to 1963.
- bare-knuckle(d) – Boxing: Characterized by a fiercely unrelenting or implacable character, for example "bare-knuckle politics". Bare-knuckle boxing is the more savage precursor to the Marquis of Queensberry fighting, which mandates the use of gloves. OED only gives one reference, a boxing one, in 1924; ; however, the figurative meaning is supported by M-W and AHD4.
- beat (someone) to the punch – Boxing: To make the first decisive move. A boxer who first strikes his opponent has beaten him to the punch (beat in the sense of "to arrive ahead of" as opposed to "strike"). OED cites the boxing term to 1923, the figurative to 1965.
- beezer – Boxing: The nose. OED cites its etymology as "obscure", but first cites it to 1915 as boxing slang.
- bench; on the bench; warm/ride the bench – Sports: To bench someone is to remove someone from participation; to be on the bench or to warm or ride the bench is to be so removed, to observe without participating, or to wait for one's chance to participate. It derives from sports such as baseball or football, where a team's players sit on benches awaiting their chance to play, or where a players who have been sidelined (see sideline, below) sit. OED cites bench in the sports sense (baseball) to 1917. ADHI dates on the bench, warm the bench and ride the bench to the "early 1900s".
- blow-by-blow – Boxing: In reference to a verbal or written account, means providing great detail: for example, "a blow-by-blow description of the movie". Sometimes simplified to the nominal phrase "blow-by-blow" as in "You saw what happened, give me the blow-by-blow." Refers to radio announcers giving such detailed accounts of the boxing matches on which they reported. OED dates the boxing usage to 1933, figurative to 1948.
- bowl over – Cricket: To astonish or overwhelm. The cricket term means to knock both of the bails off the wicket. AHDI dates the usage to the mid-1800s.
- carry the ball – American football, rugby, etc: To take charge, to assume responsibility. In some ball games (for example American or Canadian football, rugby, etc), the ball can be carried to advance toward a goal. OED dates figurative usage to 1930, , ADHI to the "early 1900s". Compare drop the ball, below.
- come out fighting or come out swinging – Boxing: To go immediately on the offensive, often pre-emptively; or, to strongly defend oneself or one's beliefs. CIDI ,
- down and out – Boxing: Lacking money or prospects; penniless or destitute. A boxer who is "down" has been knocked to the canvas, and one who is also "out" is unconscious or unable to resume the fight; thus a down-and-out boxer is utterly defeated. AHDI states the term "probably" came from boxing, circa 1900; OED references boxing rather obliquely, and cites first figurative usage to 1889.
- down for the count; out for the count – Boxing: To be defeated. Refers to a boxer being knocked down; the referee will count off ten seconds, the time allotted for the boxer to regain his feet or lose the fight. Down for the count may imply a temporary setback, as down does not necessarily imply out. AHDI dates "down for the count" to the 1920s ; OED cites out for the count to 1930. Compare take the full count, below.
- down to the wire – Horse racing: To the very end or last minute. From the length of wire stretched across a racetrack at the finish line. AHDI dates its figurative use to about 1900.
- drop the ball – Baseball, rugby, American football, etc: Make an error, miss an opportunity. In games where a ball may be legally caught (e.g. baseball) or carried (e.g. American football), a player (or the player's team) may be penalized for dropping the ball; for example, an American football player who drops a ball ("fumbles") risks having the ball recovered and carried by the other team; in baseball, a player who drops a thrown or batted ball may be charged with an error. AHDI dates the figurative usage to about the 1950s. Compare carry the ball, above.
- end run – American football: An evasive tactic; an attempt to avoid or bypass opposition. In America football, it is an attempt to run around one's own end (of a line of players) and towards the goal. OED dates football usage to 1902, figurative to 1952.
- full-court press – Basketball: An all-out effort to exert pressure. In basketball, full-court press is an aggressive defence strategy in which the defenders put pressure on the opposing team over the entire court, trying to disrupt their dribbling and passing. AHDI cites the usage to the "late 1900s". OED cites first basketball usage in 1976, and figurative usage in 1978, but the cite itself states that the term was used figuratively in "the late sixties".
- gambit – Boxing: A strategem or tactic; also, an opening move in chess. The term arrives in modern parlance through chess, but originates in wrestling from the Italian gambetto, tripping the opponent. OED cites the chess usage to 1656, the figurative usage to 1855.
- get the ball rolling – Some ball games: To start an endeavour. Some ball games are started by rolling a ball into play. AHDI dates to the late 1700s. See also keep the ball rolling, below.
- glass jaw – Boxing: Vulnerability, especially of a public figure, to destructive criticism. In boxing, a fighter who is especially vulnerable or susceptible to a knockout is said to have a glass jaw.
- the gloves are off – Boxing, Hockey: See take off the gloves, below.
- go the distance – Boxing: Carry through a course of action to completion. A boxer goes the distance when he can fight through all the scheduled rounds. OED cites the boxing idiom to 1934, but does not date its figurative usage.
- go to the mat – Wrestling: to engage in an argument or dispute, especially until one side is victorious. In wrestling, it means to engage in a wrestling bout, the mat being the surface on which the contest is fought. OED cites the wrestling usage to 1908, the figurative to 1912; however, AHDI states it has been used in its figurative sense "since about 1900".
- hands down – Horse racing: With great ease; unconditionally; often (and originally) in the phrase to win hands down, in which a jockey, certain of victory, drops his hands relaxes his hold on the reins. The horse-racing phrase is first cited by OED in 1867, figurative usage in 1913.
- hat trick – Cricket: A threefold feat in an endeavour. In cricket, a bowler who took three wickets with three successive bowls was entitled to a new hat (or some other prize) awarded by his club. OED cites to 1877, figurative to 1909.
- have someone in your corner – Boxing: To have the support or help of someone. A boxer's ringside support staff – second, cut man, etc – are in his corner, and assist him between rounds. CIDI
- heavy hitter – Boxing: An important or influential individual or organization. Refers to a boxer who is able to hit hard; AHDI states it "was transferred to other enterprises in the mid-1900s".
- heavyweight – Boxing: A person of great influence or importance. In boxing, it is a weight division of 175 pounds (79.5 kg) or higher, or a boxer fighting in this division. OED dates the boxing usage to 1877 (it was previously used in horse-racing), but does not cite or date the figurative usage. See also lightweight, below.
- hit below the belt – Boxing: To act unfairly or unscrupulously, in disregard of the rules. To hit an opponent below the belt is an illegal move in boxing. WNM dates this use to "1941-46" ; OED dates to 1891. See low blow, below.
- home stretch or homestretch – Horse racing: The final phase of an endeavour or project. On a racecourse, the home stretch is the final part of track on which the race finishes. OED dates racing usage to 1841, but does not date or cite a figurative usage; M-W defines a figurative use but does not date it.
- hurler on the ditch – Hurling: A non-participant who criticises from outside. Derives from a spectator (typically a man too old to play anymore) criticising the players whilst observing from an earth bank (a ditch; most hurling clubs do not have stands so the crowd stand at the pitchside).
- in-fighting, infighting – Boxing: Close-quarter fighting. Also, conflict between members of the same organization, often concealed from outsiders. Infighting in boxing is fighting in close quarters; when the fighters are extremely close, it may sometimes be difficult for spectators (or even the referee) to see each blow. OED dates the boxing usage to 1812, and the first non-boxing meaning to 1928, and the first non-physical meaning to 1960. OED does not refer to the second meaning, which is the one stated (but undatd) by AHD and WordNet.
- kayo, K.O. – Boxing: To put out of commission. From the boxing phrase "knockout" (knock unconscious), abbreviated "K.O." and pronounced and often written as "kayo". OED dates "K.O." to 1922, figurative use to 1923; "kayo" to 1923, figurative sense 1939. See knockout, below.
- keep one's eye on the ball – Ball games: To remain alert. In most games involving balls, it is important for players to keep track of the ball. AHDI dates to circa 1900.
- keep the ball rolling – Some ball games: To keep a conversation or endeavour from flagging. In some games, the ball must be kept moving or play stops. AHDI dates to the late 1700s; OED does not provide a cite until 1840. See also get the ball rolling, above.
- kisser. The mouth or face. Although the etymology is obvious — that which kisses — it apparently first appeared as boxing slang in 1860 (OED).
- knockout, knock-out – Boxing: A stunningly attractive or exciting person. In boxing a "knockout" is scored when one boxer "knocks out" another boxer, either by striking him unconscious, or knocking him to the canvas such that he cannot rise within a count of ten (a "technical knockout"). AHD derives the figurative term from the boxing in the "early 20th century"; OED does not. Both seem to suggest, however, that the verb phrase "knock out" or "knock someone out" predates boxing.
- lead with one's chin – Boxing: To behave or speak without caution, or to leave oneself unprotected. Refers to a boxer leaving his chin, a vulnerable point, unprotected. AHDI dates this usage to the "mid-1900s" ; OED cites Erle Stanley Gardner in 1949.
- lightweight – Boxing: (A person or thing) of little importance, consequence, intelligence or ability. In boxing, it is a weight division of boxers weighing no more than 135 pounds or 60.7 kg, or a boxer who fights in that division. OED cites boxing usage to 1823, figurative usage to 1885.
- low blow – Boxing: An unscrupulous or unfair attack, action, or insult. Refers to an illegal blow aimed at the area below another boxer's waist or belt. AHDI cites this usage to about 1950. See hit below the belt, above.
- Monday morning quarterback – American football: A person who criticizes or passes judgement with benefit of hindsight. Monday morning refers to the games played or broadcast on weekends, with criticisms leveled by a spectator the following week. See also quarterback, below. OED cites football usage to 1932.
- no holds barred – Wrestling: With all restrictions relaxed. The rules of wrestling bar or proscribe certain holds or grips on one's opponent. OED cites figurative usage to 1942, , while AHDI indicates its wrestling origins.
- by a nose – see win by a nose, below.
- on the ropes – Boxing: On the verge of defeat. Refers to a boxer who has been knocked against the ropes that enclose the boxing ring and kept there by the blows of his opponent. OED cites the boxing usage to 1958, figurative use to 1970.
- one-two (punch), the old one-two – Boxing An attack consisting of two punches in rapid succession with alternate hands. OED cites boxing usage to 1811, figurative usage to 1948. The phrase the old one-two is cited ijn 1960, but quotes it from "a more vulgarly robust age".
- out for the count – See down for the count, above.
- play ball (with) – Baseball: To cooperate (with) or act fairly (with). Derives from a baseball umpire's call to "Play ball!" to start a game. AHDI dates the term to the late 1800s; OED dates the figurative usage to 1903.
- pull one's punches – Boxing: To use less force than one is capable of; to be gentle or lenient. In boxing, a boxer who holds back from using all his strength is said to pull his punches. Often used in a negative sense, in the phrase "pull no punches". The boxing term dates to 1934, the figurative to 1937 (OED).
- punch-drunk – Boxing: dazed, bewildered, or confused; or behaving in such a manner. In boxing, it refers to Dementia pugilistica, a neurological disorder in boxers triggered by repeated dazing blows or punches to the head over an extended period of time; symptoms include dementia, inappropriate behaviour, slurring of speech, etc, which resemble symptoms of alcoholic intoxication (hence punch-drunk). Figuratively, it refers to a state of dazedness or confusion resulting from fatigue, overwork, burnout, continuous exposure to unpleasant situations, or perhaps even emotional upheaval, as in suffering repeated figurative blows to one's ego, emotional well-being, etc. OED dates the boxing usage to 1918, the figurative to 1934. See punchy, slap-happy, below..
- punchy – Boxing: See punch-drunk, above; also, in a state of nervous tension, fatigued. OED cites as synonym for "punch-drunk" to 1937, alternate meaning to 1943. See punch-drunk, above, slap-happy, below.
- quarterback – American football: One who directs or leads; a mastermind; also used as a verb, to quarterback. It is also used as a term for a supporter or critic of a football team or game, and by extension, an uninvolved observer who criticizes or second-guesses; see Monday morning quarterback, above. In American football, the quarterback is the player on the field responsible for coordinating and directing play, and the one to whom the ball is snapped at the beginning of each play. OED cites figurative use of "leader" to 1961; ; it dates the verb usage to 1952, a cite which in itself cites the term to 1945.
- ringside judge – Boxing: A person who follows a topic or situation closely. In boxing, the ringside judges who score a boxing match sit at the ringside table (see below), and thus have an excellent view of the proceedings. OED cites this use to 1976.
- ringside seat, ringside table – Boxing: A place providing a good view of something. In boxing, a ringside seat is immediately adjacent to the ring in which the boxers fight, as is the ringside table, at which the ringside judges (see above) sit. OED cites ringside seat to 1934, ringside table to 1929.
- roll with the punches – Boxing: To take adversity in stride; to adapt to difficult circumstances. A boxer who "rolls with the punches" moves his body away from the force of a blow so as to lessen their impact. OED cites the boxing term to 1941, the figurative to 1956.
- round – Boxing: A single phase of an endeavour or contest: "The defence attorney started round two by filing a writ of habeas corpus." Also, an encounter, often confrontational, as in the phrase go a few rounds or go a couple of rounds: "I went a couple of rounds with the ex-wife's lawyer." A round in boxing is one of a set number of small contests (usually three minutes) that make up the entire match. OED dates the boxing term to 1812, extennds it to battling animals in 1846, then to a figurative sense in 1937.
- run interference – American football: To handle problems for another person or to clear the way for another. In American football, a player who runs interference interferes or obstructs opponents to let the ball carrier advance. AHDI dates the usage to the mid-1900s.
- saved by the bell – Boxing: to be saved from misfortune or unpleasantness by a timely interruption. Alludes to a boxer who is knocked to the canvas, and must regain his feet before a count of ten or lose the contest; if the bell signalling the end of the round is rung before the count is finished, the fighter now has until the start of the next round to recover and resume fighting. ADHI dates this to the "mid-1900s"; OED cites first boxing use in 1932, figurative use in 1959.
- sideline; on/from the sidelines – Sports: To remove from participation. A player who is is injured, benched, etc is removed from play and forced to sit on or observe from the sidelines. The sidelines themselves are the lines on the side of the playing field which define the playing area from that of spectators, non-playing team members, etc. OED defines sidelines in terms of "spec[ifically] Football and other sports", figurative use from 1934. See also bench.
- slam dunk, slam-dunk – Basketball: A forcefull, dramatic move, especially against someone. In basketball, it is a forceful shot in which the player jumps to the basket and slams the ball in. OED only cites the basketball definition, and that to 1976; AHDI cites a figurative usage from "about 1980 on".
- slap-happy – Boxing: Synonym for punch-drunk, above; also, dizzy with happiness; carefree, casual, thoughtless, irresponsible. The "punch-drunk" meaning OED cites to 1936; the "dizzy" meaning appears two years later. The "carefree…etc" connotation appears in 1937; it appears the evolution of the idiomatic meaning was influenced by the element "happy" over that of "slap".
- sparring partner – Boxing: A person with whom one routinely argues or enjoys arguing. Refers to a boxer who is hired to practise with another for training purposes. Other phrases such as "sparring match" (for a verbal argument), and even the verb "to spar" (to bandy words), may actually come from cockfighting.
- square off – Boxing: To assume a fighting stance or attitude. In boxing, the term derives from the square shape of the ring, and the stance fighters assume immediately before the fight commences. AHD derives the figurative use from boxing in a note at the entry knockout. OED does not specifically refer to boxing, but cites a physical fighting usage to 1838 and a figurative in 1873.
- sucker punch – Boxing: An unexpected blow. In boxing, a sucker punch is one delivered unexpectedly. OED dates boxing term to 1947, but does not cite first figurative usage.
- Sunday punch – Boxing: A destructive blow to an opponent. In boxing, a Sunday punch is a knockout blow. WordNet refers to it specifically in terms of boxing. OED cites a meaning as a knockout punch to 1929, figurative use to 1944, but does not ascribe it to the sport of boxing directly.
- take a dive — Boxing: To pretend or feign, with intent to deceive. Refers to boxers who would pretend to be knocked out by a light or even non-existent punch, thus intentionally losing the fight; this was one method of losing a "fixed" fight (one with an unlawfully prearranged outcome). OED gives the boxing reference as 1952, the non-boxing in 1982.
- take it on the chin – Boxing: To suffer misfortune or defeat. It alludes to taking a physical blow on the chin; AHDI dates this usage to the "first half of [the] 1900s" ; OED, however, qualifies this definition, adding "courageously", and citing its first use to 1928.
- take off the gloves – Boxing, Hockey: To attack earnestly, without mercy. Boxing gloves are worn for protection of the boxer's hands and to lessen the impact of the punches; bare-knuckle boxing is much more savage and dangerous. Used also in Hockey, as two (or more) players signal their intention to fight by dropping their gloves. Often used as in the gloves are off, meaning the fight or dispute has escalated (CIDI ). This phrase may derive from earlier forms; the boxing sense OED cites to 1922, the figurative to 1928.
- take the (full) count – Boxing: To be defeated. Refers to a boxer being knocked down, the referee counting off ten seconds, the time allotted for the boxer to regain his feet or lose the fight. A boxer who takes the full count accepts defeat. OED cites this usage in 1902. Compare down for the count, above
- throw in the towel – Boxing: To surrender, admit defeat. Originally throw up the sponge or chuck up the sponge; OED cites "from the practice of throwing up the sponge used to cleanse the combatants' faces, at a prize~fight, as a signal that the ‘mill’ is concluded." (1860) The phrase throw in the towel in a non-boxing sense first dates to 1916 in a book by C. J. Dennis.
- throw one's hat into the ring – Boxing: To signify one's candidacy for (political) office or election; to enter a contest. In early days of boxing, one signified a challenge by throwing one's hat into the boxing ring. AHDI cites the boxing use to 1900; OED cites the figurative to 1928.
- under the wire – Horse racing: At the very last moment; in the nick of time; barely within some accepted parameters or limits. "The report was handed in just under the wire." Or, "At five-foot-five, he was under the wire for the height requirement for enlistment." From the practice of stretching a wire over the finish line at a racetrack. AHDI dates to the first half of the 1900s ; OED dates the horse-racing term to 1889 and the figurative sense to 1929.
- win by a nose – Horse racing: To succeed by a very narrow margin. "Our bid for the construction contract won by a nose." In horse racing, it describes a win so close that only the nose of the winning horse came in ahead of the other. AHDI dates the sports usage to about 1900, the figurative to sometime after 1950. OED, however, cites a literal usage in 1851, but does not cite a figurative usage until 1997, and that in the phrase "lost by a nose."
- work out, work-out, workout — Boxing: To exercise or practice, especially in terms of physical training; also, the act of working out. Work out was a term for boxing for practice as opposed to a set contest. OED gives the earliest boxing reference as 1927, non-boxing as 1929.
- Ammer, Christine. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Online. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.
- Simpson, John (Chief Ed.). The Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2006.