From U.S. Embassy English Journal of 2008

Hi, Readers:  I thought you might like this article from the U.S.Embassy’s E-Journal of 2008 as it really explains the use of: Game On! Sports and Recreation Idioms in American English

The url for the journal is at the end of the article.  There are many useful articles for persons interested in American English.  

11 August 2007

youth playing on computers (© AP Images/Paul Sakuma)

“Game On” is declared when a video game is resumed so all players are once again engaged. (© AP Images/Paul Sakuma)


This article appeared in the August 2007 edition of eJournal USA.

Idioms derived from the sports and games played in the United States are commonly used in American English. The author gives examples of idioms used in everyday conversation and in the media. Jean Henry is the author of How to Play the Game: American English Sports and Games Idioms. A retired teacher and professor of English as a second language, she has degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard University, and she has done additional course work at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Oxford University in England.

English is a dynamic and changing language. Because of the nature of the language, words and phrases are constantly being added or subtracted. “Carbon neutral” was added to last year’s edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary and named “word of the year” because of the concern about climate change. “Blog,” “to blog,” and “blogging” have entered the common lexicon. This dynamism is also true for idiomatic or metaphorical language and its use in the United States.

Idioms are words or phrases that cannot be understood literally, but are derivative. (Webster’s dictionary defines an idiom as “a peculiar way of saying something which has become established after long use.”) Idioms exist in all languages. They are, however, especially common in spoken American English.

American idioms are derived from many sources, including the culture of sports and games. Perhaps because of the informal atmosphere, language used by sports reporters, fans, and the players themselves has produced many words and phrases used in other contexts. Sports phrases are constantly changing: A “lay-up,” an easy shot close to the basket in basketball that used to mean an easy task in the non-basketball world, has evolved into “slam-dunk” as increased size and athleticism have allowed players to elevate above the rim of the basket and forcefully slam the ball through it.

The knowledge of American idioms or metaphors, particularly those of sports and games, is essential to mastering colloquial American English speech. Games have captured the American heart and mind. Terms associated with play have become associated with work and business. To “pinch hit” or “carry the ball,” two expressions from baseball and American football, used in their idiomatic sense rather than the literal, mean that a person will substitute or work on a project for a co-worker or boss. Failure to understand the games and the terms and idioms derived from them hinders communication.

The use of a word or an idiom changes with the popularity of the games played and the psyche of the country, the region, and the person using them. For example, idiomatic expressions based on sailing terms, such as “take a new tack” or “bail out,” might be used more on the west and east coasts of the United States than in the heartland, and a person whose hobby is sailing will undoubtedly use them more frequently. There are many baseball and American football idioms used in the United States because of the widespread popularity of these sports.


basketball player  (© AP Images/Nikki Boertman)

A professional basketball player executes a slam-dunk. (© AP Images/Nikki Boertman)

At Condoleezza Rice’s Senate confirmation hearings for the position of secretary of state, one Republican senator, using metaphors from American football, said about the nominee’s response to questions, “…there was some bump and run defenses and tactics used against her but she never really got off her stride.”

Some idioms will be international in use. “Always on the ball,” a New York Ticketmaster advertisement with a picture of a ball, will be understandable in translation to persons worldwide. As will “game plan,” used by Stanford University Professor David G. Victor when talking about President Bush’s global goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to a June 1, 2007, article in the New York Times, Victor said that the goal would be “very difficult to be taken as seriously as it should be taken in the world without some kind of a clear [U.S. domestic] game plan.”

Some are more difficult: A New York Times article of June 4, 2007, entitled “Romney Political Fortunes Are Tied to Riches He Gained in Business,” says: “Bain [Romney’s company] and its co-investors extracted special payments of over $100 million from each company, enabling Bain to make a healthy profit even before re-selling the businesses — a practice know as ‘getting back your bait.’“ This refers to a fishing term.

Idioms are often difficult for the non-native speaker to learn in isolation from their original sources. Thinking in categories helps: Team sports, such as basketball and football, will have many of the same rules, terms, and fields as their international counterparts. Card games, hunting, and fishing are similar to the same games and sports in other countries. This framework or context of the game from which the term originated facilitates learning both of the literal and of the idiomatic usage. And familiarization with American games can also be enhanced by watching television broadcasts of baseball, football, and basketball games, or Olympic events. The context of a sentence is important. “Two strikes against him,” a baseball expression, denotes that one strike is left before the batter is declared out. The sentence “He hit a home run to left field with two strikes against him” could be a sentence for a student to practice, since it requires an understanding of this phrase in its literal sense. The idiomatic meaning then can be practiced in a sentence such as “He had two strikes against him when he interviewed for the job, because he had no experience.”

Some phrases, such as “play hardball” are more common in the derived or idiomatic sense. The sentence, “Let’s play hardball on this contract,” for example, means that one party intends to make little or no compromise in negotiating with the other party. This use is more typical than its literal meaning: to play baseball, a game that uses a ball made from a hard material.

In many cases, the student, businessperson, or politician at a conference might hear an idiomatic phrase and try to deduce the meaning from the context of the meeting. If there is confusion, the learner can ask someone later or use one of the many idiomatic phrase books or Internet sites available to find the idiom and its meaning. The student or professional person should then practice the use of the idiom with a friend, preferably someone who is conversant in colloquial English.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.

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