Varsity Letter: Varsity Vernacular

The following column was published in Wootton’s Common Sense newspaper.


Communication is essential to any sports team. But to the occasional spectator, the athletes on the field may appear to be speaking a foreign language. From playcalls to formations to moves to gear, the language of our sports teams is so strange and confusing that it can flummox even the athletes themselves.

Sports breathe new life, and new meanings, into otherwise common words that seemingly have nothing to do with sports. Take the field hockey team, which uses the term “dog leg” to describe a 90 degree pass from the baseline. Or soccer, whose coaches are known for calling out “framing” to prompt defenders to return the goal. Football players call out “Honda” when choosing a six-yard hitch and use another vehicular term, NASCAR, to hurry up the offense during games.

That’s just the start. Baseball, a sport well known for using terms such as “stealing”, “pitcher” and “bat”, is the chief culprit of this practice. Players have to “hang and bang” to hit a curveball or “hit and run” to advance a runner on the basepaths. Patriot coaches also tell their team to put up a “crooked number,” or a high run total, between innings and to “paint” the strike zone with pitches on either side.

There is also an apparent infatuation with food on our sports fields. Wrestlers call a go-to maneuver a “bread and butter” move, while baseball players call a hard throw “cheese” and an easy throw “meat.” “Slicing” from tennis and “bib” from cross country also seem better suited for the dinner table. Put it all together and it’s practically a Thanksgiving feast.

Even more bewildering are terms that contradict their literal use. Take football, which uses the names Mike, Sam and Will to refer to linebackers whose names this season were actually Max, Jake, and Joe. That might as well be an Abbott and Costello routine. “Jump ball” is the term used when basketball players on opposite teams share possession of the ball, though 1) this often occurs when players are on the ground and 2) at the high school level this doesn’t even result in players jumping for the ball. Likewise, there is nothing safe about being sacked for a “safety” in football and little to smile about when your score is “love” in tennis.

Often, connotation trumps denotation, as there are some terms that players never want to hear despite otherwise innocent literal definitions. The most brutal cross country workout is called “Dundee,” named after the park where the workout takes place, and any mention of this word sends athletes into a frenzy. Football players loathe the “Oklahoma” drill, in which two players charge at each other. Wrestlers despise “rounds,” which entail a tiring regimen that includes pushups, situps and squats.  

If these regular words with sporting-related definitions aren’t confusing enough, there are other words that seem like gibberish. As a cross country runner, I tend to lower my voice whenever I mention our most common workout, the fartlek (no relation to flatulence). When a player on the boys’ basketball team makes a great play, teammates acknowledge with the term “guap,” a strange word of unknown origins. And “bangoo” is used by soccer players as a kick from the corner toward the goal.
Maybe the language of sports isn’t your bread and butter, but it’s important to remember that these foreign words serve a purpose and that without them our teams couldn’t function. So next time you hear a “NASCAR” or a “guap”, know that they’re getting your team closer to a “W.”

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