Not every word means what you think it means. People develop ways of saying things without saying them, speaking in shorthand and code. If you’ve ever tried to explain cricket to someone who’s never experienced the great sport before then you’ll know exactly how deep language can go in our understanding of the sports we love. Or zip over to America where every play has a technical term to describe it, every action can be whittled down to a first down and ten at the 35 yard line, where Ezekiel Elliott rushes six yards between the tackle and guard to set up second and six… or whatever.
We kinda underestimate the role of words and stuff when it comes to sports. Partly coz we assume that sportsmen are dumbos who can’t spell and (on a less judgemental note) also partly because we look at sports as these visceral, combative competitions where athletic feats are all that matters. But if that was the case then why do we read about sports? Why do we watch them with the commentary on?
So words are important in the way we watch, enjoy, understand and experience the sports that we do. Yet they don’t always work in the ways we expect them to. Be it from the voice of some highly paid commentator in broadcast, a coach or a player spilling breathless/guarded clichés to the media at a press conference or just a few folks sinking beers in front of the telly, sports chat is like an open gallery for the sly art of the euphemism. Words that convey a meaning other than the literal one.
In order to better understand what people mean when they talk about sports, here’s a list of some common euphemisms, defined to reveal their true definitions.
ABILITY – (n) The thing that people have which enables them to do what they do. Lydia Ko has the ability to make long putts with ease. Steven Adams has the ability to make crunching put-back dunks though he lacks the ability to shoot three-pointers.
ATHLETIC – (adj) Fit, fast and forceful. Means what it’s supposed to mean but is usually reserved for descriptions of sportsfolk of colour.
ATMOSPHERE – (n) What the crowd provides. ‘Atmosphere’ comes in one of three varieties: ‘electric’, ‘dull’ and ‘toxic’.
AUDACIOUS – (adj) Brilliantly reckless. When most people throw up a 40-footer in basketball it’s considered idiotic. But when Steph Curry does it, since he actually has a chance of making it, so suddenly it’s ‘audacious’.
AUSSIE – (n) Someone who is full of effort, often very talented, but tends to be loud and obnoxious about it. As self-confident as they are successful. Generally hail from the nation of ‘Australia’ though occasionally attributed to New Zealand athletes as well by mistake.
BANTER – (n) Words exchanged within the realms of either supporting or competing at sports. Often used to disguise the act of sledging or insulting – especially if used with the qualifier ‘friendly’ (as in: it was only ‘friendly banter’). Tends to be very dumb and masculine but can occasionally contain wit and perception.
BATTLER – (n) One whose enthusiasm outweighs their natural talent. Generally important teammates though with the perspective they offer. Got where they are through hard work and application.
BEAST – (n) Similar to ‘athletic’, another way that certain types of people describe coloured sportsfolk in order to explain what they do without having to acknowledge how hard they work and how intelligent they are about what they do. LeBron James? Mate, he’s just a beast.
BRAND – (n) A style or ambition to the game, potentially even a code of honour. Note the commercial aspect to the phrase. E.g. Brendon McCullum’s ‘Brand of Cricket’.
BRASH – (adj) Unapologetically assertive, like the cricketer who appeals too often. Shares some traits with ‘Aussie’.
BUSTLING – (adj) When the energy exerted doesn’t exactly match up with the result. A bowler who steams in and still only bowls 125k/h.
CAREFREE – (adj) One who continues to take glorious risks despite everyone in the crowd holding their breath as they do so. Does not relate in any way to the level of care from said individual.
CHALLENGE – (n) A difficult match or event. Pretty much a polite way of saying the team will be lucky if they don’t get thrashed.
CHAMPION – (n) An honorary title bestowed upon those legends that have reached the pinnacle of their chosen sporting profession. Also sometimes just a fun way to refer to someone.
CHARACTER – (n/adj) Being respectful in victory and defeat both, exhibiting virtuous traits throughout. One who shows great ‘character’ is one we can all be proud of. It’s also a pretentious way of saying a team did well, saying they showed ‘character’.
CHEMISTRY – (n) What good teams have and bad teams lack. Usually considered to have something to do with team bonding and morale though its exact meaning deliberately vague. One thing it does not refer to the study of chemicals.
CLASS – (n) A particularly aesthetic greatness. No weird throwing angles or unconventional batting stances. Tom Brady and Kane Williamson. Also used by middle aged white men to describe an ethnic athlete whom they would not be afraid to invite into their house.
COMBATIVE – (adj) In a word: violent. Dives into tackles/challenges and leaves in the elbow whenever possible. A dirty player.
COMRADERY – (n) What it’s called when teammates have each other’s home phone numbers and can remember the name of at least one of each other’s children.
CONFIDENT – (adj) Doesn’t feel like they need to pass the ball because they know what they’re doing. The difference between confidence and selfishness is the success rate. Russell Westbrook is confident, Nick Young is selfish.
CONSISTENT – (adj) Reliably average. Six out of ten every game, no matter whether the team wins or loses.
CONTROVERSIAL – (adj) A ‘troubled’ athlete is on the way down, a ‘controversial’ one is on the way back up. So, somebody who’s been charged with a felony, served time in prison, committed match-fixing, karate kicked a fan in the crowd, etc. and is now back in the game and playing well, allowing people to at least partially forgive them for massive and unrelated character flaws.
CRISIS – (n) A disappointing run of results. If a team loses three games in a row then that constitutes a crisis. The exact criteria differs depending on the expectations of the team. One loss for the All Blacks is officially a crisis.
CULTURE – (n) The mysterious bond between teammates that ensures a healthy working relationship and positive results. Despite common logic it’s a subjective thing, based largely on results. E.g. if the Warriors smile after a defeat it’s because they have bad team culture.
CUP FINAL – (n) An important fixture. Does not refer to a Cup Final at all but is instead a comparison with the singular, all-or-nothing nature of one. Almost always used in exaggeration.
DESIRE – (n) The will to win/succeed/achieve.
DETERMINATION – (n) A grizzlier version of ‘desire’. Less optimistic, more hard-headed force. Often used in conjunction with ‘desire’ despite mostly meaning the same thing (She’s showed a lot of desire and determination there).
DIMINUTIVE – (adj) It means short or very small but when expressed in this way it removes the casual dismissiveness that comes with calling someone undersized in an arena where physicality is so important.
DISASTER – (n) See: ‘crisis’.
DISCIPLINED – (adj) Won’t give away a stupid penalty with five minutes to play that costs the team the game, avoids making silly errors. Also a substitute for the word ‘boring’ when describing a person.
DIVISIVE – (adj) Despite the literal meaning, when an athlete is divisive it really means that everybody hates them. The polarity comes from them still having the nerve to be really good at what they do regardless of that.
DRIVEN – (adj) One who appears to have some kind of motivation for what they do. Could be an inspirational rags to riches story or it could be media criticism. It’s almost as if they care about their jobs.
DURABLE – (adj) Capable of playing many games in a row without getting injured.
EFFORT – (n) A person who displays ‘effort’ is 100% committed to the cause, always trying their hardest no matter what the circumstances. Often seen as the cure for bad results – the Warriors, man, they just don’t show enough effort.
ELITE – (n) The irrelevant category that separates the very best from the rest, often used as a way of starting pointless arguments based on opinion. Elite is strictly for US English. UK English speakers use the term: ‘World Class’.
ENERGETIC – (adj) Full of running, even when extra running isn’t necessary. Never seems to tire though they also don’t seem to realise that positioning is important too.
EXCITING – (adj) Any action within a game that rises above the predictable is an ‘exciting’ one. The opposite of exciting is ‘boring’ and any middle ground in entertainment falls under the ‘boring’ category.
EXPERTS – (n) The people who write and talk about sports as opposed to those that actually play or coach. Usually located within the ‘media’.
FAN FAVOURITE – (adj) A player who for whatever reason finds themselves beloved by the supporters. Usually to do with longevity, passion and loyalty.
FEARLESS – (adj) Will not hesitate to put themselves in serious physical harm, does not consider consequences. This is either a valuable trait or a stupid one depending entirely on whether they get injured or not.
FEISTY – (adj) ‘Uncompromising’ minus the connotations of foul play.
FIGHT – (n) The inherent thing within an individual that keeps them toiling away even when their team’s getting absolutely annihilated. Fans love a bit of ‘fight’.
FIREWORKS – (n) Things that explode in the night sky, like home runs and sixes down the ground. Any drastic rise in action can be classed as ‘fireworks’.
FLAIR – (n) A certain kind of thrilling creativity that you either have or you don’t have. A stunning sidestep, a bicycle kick into the top corner, three crossover dribbles and a deep pull-up triple… be careful though, it’s only ‘flair’ if you’re good. If not you’re just a useless show-off.
FLAMBOYANT – (adj) The type of fellow who’ll chuck in three goose steps where only one was needed. Often implies softness, a lack of ‘grit’ if you will.
FOOTBALL IQ – (n) Being able to read and understand a game in progress. A way of being able to praise the brains of people who mostly all dropped out of uni after a year.
FORM – (n) A mystical, immeasurable force that enlightens and explains an athlete’s recent performances. Martin Guptill tonned up again? Yeah, he’s in good form.
FRAGILE – (adj) Constantly injured, spends more time on the physio table than in the field of play.
FRENCH – (adj) A distinctly English way of describing footballers who display a certain kind of attitude. A hint of arrogance, a hint of superiority, a hint of style and a hint of flair and temperament. Eric Cantona was a French footballer. Thierry Henry was a French footballer. Wayne Rooney is not.
GRITTY – (adj) A ‘gritty’ player is one who shows ‘determination’. Being able to grind through the struggles is a sign of grit. Having a tonk over midwicket because you missed one playing straight the ball before is not.
GRUBBY – (adj) The person in the team who pushes the boundaries of fair play far enough that opposition players all despise them but not far enough that their teammates do as well. In fact because the ‘grubbiness’ is so tactical, teammates tend to love them. Not dirty, just grubby.
HARDWORKING – (adj) Never gives up or stops running. Despite how much they suck, bless them.
HEART – (n) An immeasurable virtue, held by winners who didn’t necessarily deserve to win. Closely related to perseverance and commitment, but with more blind faith. The Blackcaps showed a lot of heart to win this one.
HEROIC – (adj) What selfish players are if it works and they win.
HUMBLE – (adj) A particularly kiwi expectation of athletes is that they don’t talk themselves up because that’d betray our romantic notion of underdogs achieving on the world stage. Joseph Parker, bro. He’s so humble.
INFLUENTIAL – (adj) One whose actions are capable of altering the performances of their teammates. Only ever used when it’s happening for the better. If someone is a negative presence then officially they’re a ‘bad influence’.
JOURNEYMAN – (n) Sort of like a ‘battler’ except they used to be really good. Now they’re old and playing small minutes off the bench but the coach keeps them around because they’re a great example to the youngsters.
KID – (n) A youthful individual, tends to be used in a way that holds said youth against them or considers said youth an obstacle to success.
LABOURING – (adj) Really, really slow. Like a tortoise trying to cover that midfield.
LEADER – (n) A better standard of journeyman who other teams would actually be interested in signing themselves. Full of wisdom, generally become coaches when they retire.
LUMBERING – (adj) Clumsy, specifically tall players who are clumsy. Also suggests a bit of strength (the harder they fall…). There are innumerable ‘lumbering’ basketballers.
MAVERICK – (n) One who plays to the beat of their own tambourine. Usually because the coach has given them that licence since they’re the only decent player of the lot of them.
MERCURIAL – (adj) A peculiar, unteachable kind of talent. Somewhat fragile in that the ‘mercurial’ player alone can do what they do and without them that spark is gone forever – as such it’s often attributed to those stars that did burn out. George Best was a mercurial talent. Jonah Lomu too, for different reasons.
MOMENTUM – (n) The unquantifiable force that measures the direction of a sporting contest. You may be losing by 15 points but if you scored the last two tries and are gunning for a third then you have the ‘momentum’.
MUCH-IMPROVED – (adj) If somebody is ‘much-improved’, it means they’ve gone from nobody having any idea what they’re doing in the team to suddenly justifying a place on the bench. Be aware of the difference between ‘much-improved’ and ‘most-improved’, the latter being a common award that’s usually won by playing more minutes, rather than improving at all.
NO-NONSENSE – (adj) Intolerant of idiocy and pointlessness. Will call a journalist out for a silly question. Tend to also be the types of people also labelled as ‘uncompromising’ and ‘driven’.
NUGGETY – (adj) One with a simplified/compacted technique or approach and the ‘determination’ to override their own weaknesses. There are prettier players to watch but the nuggety ones tend to do alright. Often reserved for opening batsmen in test cricket.
OPPORTUNISTIC – (adj) An opportunistic player is one with the tendency to achieve thanks to the work of others or from opposition mistakes. Not a negative trait at all, think a poaching striker in football or a try-scoring winger in rugby or league. Also known as ‘finishers’.
OUTSPOKEN – (adj) Doesn’t hold their tongue, will express tangible emotion when speaking to the media. Sometimes even gives proper quotes. This is considered a bad thing within the deferential environment of team sports.
PASSIONATE – (adj) Regularly booked for arguing with officials and sometimes swears in post-match interviews. But nobody wants to rein them in for fear that their ‘passion’ is what makes them so good.
PERSPECTIVE – (n) The rare acknowledgement, particularly from media folks, that sports can be viewed from different eyes and that there isn’t always a black and white definition. From a Wildcats perspective that was a great shot but from a Breakers perspective the defence really let them down.
POLARISING – (adj) When you’re both single-handedly praised for every win and single-handedly blamed for every loss. Shaun Johnson is a polarising player. Can also mean beloved by their coach who keeps picking them and hated by literally everybody else in existence.
POOR – (adj) A catchall phrase to deride a performance without having to offer any analysis. Oh the Blues lost another one? Yeah, they were really poor. Just a poor performance in general. They’ve been poor all season.
POTENTIAL – (n) What young sportsfolk have that enables them to be given opportunities and contracts beyond what they deserve. ‘Potential’ over time is supposed to develop into ‘ability’, though it’s not an exact science.
PRESSURE – (n) The burden of expectation and the urge to succeed. ‘Pressure’ is applied from all angles, from fans to coaches to media to the athlete themselves, and is dealt with in unique ways. ‘Leaders’ can cope with pressure very well. ‘Kids’ cannot.
PROCESS – (n) The Process is the course, the road, the plan, the idea, the concept, the blueprint, the journey, the hype… yeah nobody really knows what this one means.
QUALITY – (n) Stock phrase for expressing admiration for a team, player or event. Especially in the UK, though is used worldwide. Steven Gerrard was quality. Liverpool’s performance was quality. That goal from Coutinho was all quality.
REBUILDING – (v) A strange and curious period in the existence of a sports team where they happen to suck and instead of getting better by a small margin in the present they attempt to arrange themselves to get a lot better in the distant future.
RELIABLE – (adj) See ‘consistent’.
RESILIENT – (adj) Capable of winning from losing positions. A resilient athlete knows how to mount a comeback. Novak Djokovic is a resilient athlete.
ROBUST – (adj) Sort of like ‘durable’ but more with the singular game view. So while a ‘durable’ player can battle on for years of health, a ‘robust’ player throws themselves all over within any particular game and never seems to get hurt.
ROLE MODEL – (n) Technically someone that a child can look up to as a hero, though implicitly used to acknowledge the rare pro athlete who has never slept with a teammates wife, punched out a bouncer, turned up hungover to training or snapchatted themselves naked or high.
RUTHLESSNESS – (n) The characteristic that allows a team or individual to continue playing as hard as they possibly can even with the game already in the bag.
SACRIFICE – (v) What one must do to make it to the top level. Involves having very little fun in your private life, focussing entirely on sport – although you can get away with it if nobody notices.
SCRAPPY – (adj) What they lack in talent they make up for with sheer intimidation and willingness to bend the rules.
STUBBORN – (adj) Refuses to accept that their team is going to lose even when they’re 20 points down with five minutes to play. Often refuses to accept their own playing limitations too.
SPECIMEN – (adj) Another racially coded way of describing the more chiselled physiques amongst us.
SPIRIT – (adj) A more preternatural version of ‘heart’, which sort of implies that they were carried along by some kind of deified energy. Again, just as with ‘heart’, it’s usually reserved for loveable losers. The Jamaican bobsled team showed tremendous spirit… but the Swiss were ‘gritty’, ‘no-nonsense’ and ‘uncompromising’.
TACTICS – (n) The X’s and O’s, the scribbles on the whiteboard. ‘Tactics’ are the gameplans that either work brilliantly for a win or fail horribly for a defeat. Usually described by those with no idea what they are and very rarely discussed by those that do.
TALENT – (n) The only thing that separates you from the professionals. Jerry Joker would’ve been a wonderful test match prop if he’d had just a little bit of talent.
TENTATIVE – (adj) A specific way of saying ‘hesitant’. Someone who doesn’t make decisive decisions and can often be intimidated. Saved for folks who are naturally passive or really young.
TIRELESS – (adj) Runs and runs and runs all day without ever stopping. Is often (though not always) attributed to those with less skill who therefore have to use that tirelessness to make up for it. Into the wind bowlers, for example. Neil Wagner is a tireless bowler.
TROUBLED – (adj) Probably going to be kicked out of the league soon. One with significant vices such as drugs, gambling, alcohol, fighting, marital infidelity, etc. The NRL is an especially fertile ground for ‘troubled’ sportsfolk.
UNCOMPROMISING – (adj) Will dive into tackles regardless of their own health but even more importantly regardless of your own health. Will throw a high shot on a guy who’s just had a concussion test, will slide tackle the guy with the ankle strapping.
UNDERPERFORMING – (adj) Overpaid.
UNDERRATED – (adj) Underpaid.
UNDERWHELMING – (adj) Very badly performed. It was an ‘underwhelming’ effort there from the lads, going down 65-0 with three red cards.
UNSELFISH – (adj) Willing to pass to a teammate in a better position even when they have the chance to shoot themselves.
WINNER – (n) One who wins, though for some reason it’s used as an indicator of future success rather than past success. As if winning in the past guarantees you to continue to do so. Case and point: Jose Mourinho is a winner.
YOUNGSTER – (n) A more encouraging, less dismissive way of acknowledging somebody’s youth, as opposed to ‘kid’.