Everyday English phrases with sporting origins

Spinning tennis ball, dispersing water droplets

You may be surprised by the origin of these everyday words and phrases. How many did you realise come from the world of sport?

Ace (something)

Everyday meaning: To achieve total success or to do something exceptionally well.

Example of use: I aced my job interview!

Sport of origin: Tennis

Original meaning: An ace is when a tennis player serves a ball so well that their opponent can’t get their racket to it.

Keep it up

Everyday meaning: To persevere at a task; to continue doing something well in the same manner.

Example of use: You’ve made great progress. Keep it up!

Sport of origin: Badminton

Original meaning: When Victorians were playing badminton, supporters would call, “Keep it up,” referring to the need to keep the shuttlecock in the air during a rally.

Knocked for six

Everyday meaning: To have received a shock of some kind.

Example of use: I’ve received some bad news that’s really knocked me for six.

Sport of origin: Cricket

Original meaning: The maximum possible score from a bowler’s delivery is six runs. This is achieved by the batter hitting the ball out of the pitch’s boundary without it bouncing. The bowler is ‘knocked for six’ if they throw a ball and have the maximum damage done to them in one go by the batter.

Start from scratch

Everyday meaning: To start again from the beginning.

Example of use: I dropped the cake as I was putting it in the oven, so now I have to start from scratch.

Sport of origin: Horse racing

Original meaning: The starting line of medieval horse races would be ‘scratched’ into the ground by a sword or javelin. If competitors broke rules, such as cutting corners, they would have to start again from the scratched line.

Throw in the towel

Everyday meaning: To give up or admit defeat, usually after a long struggle.

Example of use: I’ve run out of energy; it’s time to throw in the towel.

Sport of origin: Boxing

Original meaning: During the mid-nineteenth century, a boxer’s seconds had to throw an object into the ring if the fighter was clearly losing the match. The sponge used for cleaning the boxer between rounds was usually the closest item to hand, so the expression ‘throw up the sponge’ became common. Over time, this became ‘throw in the towel’.

Over to you

Which sporting-related words or phrases do you know that we use in everyday language? Drop them in the comments!

If you liked this post, you may enjoy the others in the series:

Thanks to Albert Jack’s Red Herrings and White Elephants and Harry Oliver’s March Hares and Monkeys’ Uncles for providing me with some of the source material for this article.

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2 Responses

  1. Graham Hughes

    Nice post, Debbie. It’s interesting that so many expressions come from baseball, and a lot of those have even become common in the UK. Ten of them are explained here: https://www.ilac.com/10-common-english-baseball-idioms/ – and it doesn’t even mention ‘cover all the bases’!

    There are quite a few others from cricket as well: ‘stumped’, ‘on a sticky wicket’, ‘had a good innings’, ‘catch [someone] out’, ‘on the front foot’, ‘that’s just not cricket’ …

    • Debbie Emmitt

      Thanks, Graham, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Thanks, too, for suggesting some other sport-related expressions. It’s interesting how we’ve adopted many from baseball in the UK.

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