Squaring Off with Sports Terminology

Touchdown! What an upset! They fought no hold barred to get that in under the wire. To some, that string of sports poetry might sound banal. To others, sports terms like these might be indecipherable. And even if you know what all these sports-related clichés mean, if you really look at each individual word, you might start to ask (not-quite-so-existentially), “what does it all mean?” And so, I’ll use this week’s trivia post to elucidate some of the crazy things that announcers and fans regurgitate on, as they might say, any given Sunday.


It’s a means of scoring. That might be good enough for some, but if you’re like me, you might be interested to learn that touchdown is a term borrowed from rugby. Let’s go deeper. In the late 1800s, modern soccer was beginning to evolve. Schoolboys in the UK had picked up the sport and started forming their own rules. Of course, there’s a major problem when one school plays the game one way and another school plays the game another way (especially when the two school want to play each other). It wasn’t always trivial rules like how large the pitch should be or even how many players can take the field. Some schools would play Rugby rules, where players could trip and kick each other and even carry the ball. (Eventually, an elder council declared the true rules of football, dubbing it association football, which was shortened by some players as soccer.)

Early rugby was more similar to modern soccer than it is today, and so when a player carried the ball past a certain point without being taken down to the ground, he could try to touch the ball to the ground and would be awarded the chance for a goal. This “touch down” would not count for any points. Eventually, the two sports grew further and further apart and this try at a goal was given some point value (and referred to as a try). Rugby came to the United States and with it came the gridiron, which adopted similar rules. A touchdown originally required the ball to touch the ground and scored ¼ of a goal. Eventually, the rules were changed, eliminating the touch down requirement for a touchdown and increasing the value of a touchdown.


The greatest Thoroughbred racehorse of all time won 20 out of his 21 races. On that ill-fated day, where Man o’ War suffered his only loss, the horses rallied near the starting line. In those early days of horse racing, there were no starting gates, and jockeys would trot their horses around behind a webbed barrier. The blast of the starting gun reverberated across the field at Sanford Memorial Stakes, and the racehorses bolted across the track. The four-legged favorite Man o’ War had his back to the starting line, though, and got a late start. His long, quick strides were not enough to catch the other competitors, and Man o’ War lost his only race to a horse called Upset. The headlines the next day read how Man o’ War had been “upset”, prompting an over-usage of this new sports cliché. It’s a great origin story – except for one thing.

The story itself is true; Man o’ War’s only loss came to a horse called Upset, and the newspapers ate it up. However, it wasn’t the first usage of the word “upset” to mean “unexpected defeat”. In the early 1990s, Oxford English Dictionary, which includes etymological facts, cited the first usage of upset in this context in 1920, one year after Man o’ War’s defeat. This would seem to help Upset’s legend, but later research showed that journalists were describing startling outcomes of sporting events as “upsets” as early as 1857. It’s a great story, but I’m all for reversing the trend of letting facts get in the way of good stories.

Shot Clock

So this one seems self-explanatory if you watch basketball. It’s a clock. It tells you how long you have to take a shot. But there’s some interesting trivia with the shot clock. That’s because although basketball was invented in the late 19th century, it wasn’t until 1953 that a shot clock was introduced. That means that if your team was ahead, there was nothing to stop you from just holding onto the ball. This led to yawn-inducing scores, like the 19-18 between professional basketball’s Ft. Wayne Pistons and Minneapolis Lakers.

Danny Biasone, owner of the Syracuse Nationals did some quick math: to get 80 points per team, each team would need to take about 60 shots per game. There were 48 minutes in a game, and so each shot would have to be no more than 24 seconds apart. Biasone recognized that fans wanted high scoring games, and even though players at the time felt like the game was fast-paced, a shot clock was implemented. Some argue that high school basketball needs a shot clock; eight states have defied the National Federation of State High School Associations’ rules and introduced a shot clock. Those that haven’t sometimes suffer: Oregon’s 2012 girls’ state championship game ended with a final score of 16-7 – including a halftime score of 4-0.

Sports idioms are rampant in everyday language. Some can be deconstructed pretty easily. If you’re feeling “saved by the bell”, you can easily connect that phrase to boxing, where a knocked-down contestant can be relieved by the end of the round that sounds before the count is finished. If there’s a deadline and it’s coming “down to the wire”, you might have to do a little more digging to figure out the origins. In this case, it’s horseracing, where a length of wire is stretched across the finish line to help decide a close race. Either way, sports terminology seems pretty par for the course in everyday language, so don’t drop the ball and get sucker punched by an unexpected cliché. Keep the ball rolling with an expression of your own, making this topic hands down your own wheelhouse.


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