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1603470cookie-checkSporting Idioms and their Origins

Sporting Idioms and their Origins

Sports are a rich source of popular sayings and terms as they serve as an apt metaphor for many of the situations we find ourselves experiencing in everyday life. Here we take a look at some of the best known sporting idioms, and uncover their unique history and usage.

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Basketball has lent to popular usage the term ‘slam dunk’ to imply a perceived certain outcome. This is due to the fact that in basketball, a slam dunk is a forceful shot that relies on the player jumping up to the basket and scoring from point blank range. Due to the close proximity of the shot, the chance of missing is extremely low. This sport has also produced the idiom ‘full court press’, an aggressive defensive tactic designed to put pressure on the opposing team. When used outside the court, it similarly points to an attempt to increase pressure on your opponent in the hope they will make a mistake.


In the popular card game of poker, a player is considered to be ‘under the gun’ if they are the first to play in a new round of betting. This means they have the least information to go on, placing them at a strategic disadvantage. This term, like many sporting phrases, has a military origin. A soldier was ‘under the gun’ if they were among the first wave of a besieging force, implying that they would be among the first people to have to contend with defensive attacks.


The gentleman’s game of cricket is behind a series of terms that have entered general parlance. Among these is the ‘hat-trick’, a saying which has become popular in other sports as well as in general usage. It refers to a threefold success in a particular endeavour, such as three goals in soccer. In its original usage, a bowler who successively takes three wickets in as many bowls was thought to be entitled to an award by their club of a new hat.

This sport is also the origin of the word ‘stumped’, which means to be unclear or confused. In the game itself, it refers to when the wicket-keeper is able to stump the wicket, causing the batsman to be dismissed. As the batsman has their back to the wicket-keeper, they are generally the last to know they’ve been dismissed. Finally, in cricket, hitting a ball beyond the boundary of the field is worth six points. This achievement leads to a surprise reversal of fortune for the antagonising bowler and has led to the saying to be ‘knocked for six’, meaning to be stunned.

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The best known idiom to emerge from the world of golf is the saying: ‘par for the course’. In the game of golf, each course is deemed to require an expected average number of strokes for a competent golfer to compete. Thus, in golf and golfing video games, to be par for the course is to be playing at the expected level for the course. This term has filtered into common speech, and is used to indicate any situation or event that is proceeding or unfolding in an expected way.


No sport has produced more sayings, puns and evocative metaphors than the pugilistic art of boxing. When a fighter is on the verge of losing a bout, and has been pushed up against the ropes of the ring by their opponent’s punches they are said to be ‘on the ropes’, which has entered common usage to refer to being near defeat in an undertaking. Like other fighting sports, boxing is organized into various weight classes in order to foster balanced competition. This is because a heavy weight boxer is mechanically capable of punching with greater force which has led to the pejorative use of the term ‘lightweight’ to imply a person or thing with limited significance or impact.

One common idiom to imply a close shave is to be ‘saved by the bell’. In boxing this refers to a fighter being spared an imminent knock-out by the round timing out, signified by the ringing of a bell. Finally, in situations taking place both in and out of the ring, if someone is attacking with their full strength they are said to be ‘pulling no punches’.

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