In February, President Obama dipped into football-speak to describe the effort to get his health care bill passed. "We've had to go into overtime," the President said, "but we are now in the red zone." There are times when the commander in chief sounds more like a Kansas City Chief, which makes him no different from the rest of us. We're so fluent in athletic lingo that we talk sports even when we're not talking about sports.
If you want to measure the depth of our obsession with the athletic, forget the gargantuan Super Bowl ratings or the willingness of grown men to shell out big bucks for replica jerseys. Just listen to the way our conversations are laced with sports-speak. We live in a world of knockout blows and three-strike laws. We think we're batting 1.000 at the office until the boss moves the goalposts on us by asking us to pinch-hit for a coworker, putting us behind the 8 ball. We ask the mechanic for a ballpark figure, and the price he quotes puts us down for the count. We tell our buddy to go ahead and take a swing at asking that woman out, even though we're thinking she's out of his league, and if she somehow says yes, we tease him about outkicking his coverage.
How would we communicate if we couldn't borrow from locker room lexicon? Lawyers would no longer refer to slam-dunk cases. Employees couldn't ask their supervisors to go to bat for them with the boss, nor could those superiors demand underlings to take one for the team. Teenage boys would have to find less coy ways to talk about how their date turned out ("Did you get to first base?").
Future linguists may look back on the way we talked to one another and conclude that we treated life as one big ball game, which isn't far from the truth. Babies are often little sluggers. Parents joke that having a third child means they have to drop the man-to-man defense and go to a zone. We have a sports term for nearly every life event except the last one, which is surprising. Death, after all, is just another way of rounding third and heading for home. Even comedian Jerry Seinfeld leaned less toward the jocular than the jock-ular when he named his new series The Marriage Ref, which celebrates the competition in matrimony. We're lucky there's no such thing as a Language Ref, whistling that the use of sports terms in a real-life context is out-of-bounds. Telling your lazy kid to step up to the plate and get a job? There's a flag on the play. Asking your wife for a mulligan when you forget her birthday? Fifteen yards for illegal use of a noun.
Our habit of tossing around athletic metaphors can't be blamed solely on our sports-soaked culture, because the practice goes back hundreds of years. Even Shakespeare couldn't resist. In contemplating suicide Juliet says that a "bloody knife shall play the umpire." Alas, she later stabs herself after discovering that Romeo, mistakenly believing her to be dead, has poisoned himself—a tragically blown call.
These days we're exposed around the clock to athletes and coaches spouting sports clichés, so we seem to drift into jock-talk more than ever. No subject is too sacred for a sports metaphor. The Church Times, an Anglican publication, recently included this in a story about the Pope's holding a meeting of clergy: "The Apostolic Visitation, probably led by a Cardinal, will include some 'heavy hitters.'" They weren't talking about Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday.
Even journalists who cover more serious topics like to lift phrases from the sports department, as The New York Times did in February in an article describing a "diplomatic full-court press in the Middle East." But a word of caution to those who aren't fluent in athletic terminology: Nothing will make you look lamer than trying to handle a sports term and booting it. In March, The Wall Street Journal ran a headline about righthander turned Senator Jim Bunning: WAS SENATOR BUNNING'S PITCH A STRIKE OR A WILD BALL? A wild ball? Really? Here's a rule of thumb: If you cannot explain the derivation of the phrase or describe a game situation in which it applies, you probably shouldn't use it in print. Don't write that someone threw you a curveball unless you can name at least one pitcher who can break off a nasty one.
But speaking sports isn't without its benefits. "It's a quick, shorthand way to forge a connection," says Tim Walker, social media manager for Hoover's Inc., a business-information publishing company. Walker is a sports nut who recently led a panel discussion titled "Hitting Bombs: Better Social Business Through Sports Metaphors." One of his tips is that business people should make sure their athletic references are appropriate for their audience. "With workplaces becoming increasingly diverse and international, talking about putting the ball in the end zone may not mean much if you're talking to associates who grew up watching soccer and cricket while you were watching football," Walker says.
In other words, when it comes to understanding the language of sports, it's not always a level playing field. And if you find that the metaphors flying around you seem as if they're coming out of leftfield, there's only one thing to do: