What I learned from the language of football

9 December, 2007 Posted by Joanna As Reflections

I thought this month’s writing challenge “what I learned from the world of sports” was going to leave me stumped.  I do not take, nor have I ever taken, an active role in the world of sports.  PE, sports days, compulsory games at school were all of a form of torture to me, a world I was happy to leave behind when I reached adulthood, and have never sought to re-enter.

But then I remembered that I do have a continuing fascination with watching, following and listening to the most beautiful of all games: football.  And as I thought about this some more I realised that it’s not just the game itself that I love, it’s the language that it’s wrapped in: the words, the expressions, the mangled metaphors and tired old clichés that are as much a part of the game as the referee’s whistle.

As time goes by I catch myself listening to football as much as watching it.  Not just the match commentary on the radio but the pre-match warm up, the post-match interviews, the phone-ins with fans - irate, frustrated, ecstatic, bitter, laughing, incoherent, witty.  I find myself smiling as I listen to the results being read out, not so much at the scores but the incantation of the team names, words from a bygone era, conjuring up not just memories from my own childhood but an imagined (and yes, clichéd) world of my grandfather’s time, pushing his way through a huge crowd of men in flat caps with thin, pinched faces, surging through the gas-lit, smog-filled streets of pre-war London.

And although we all love to scream and shout at the nonsense mouthed by the TV commentators, the studio pundits, the players and managers - their garbled sentences, the clichés, the platitudes - the world of this particular sport would be diminished without the words, the language, the narrative that goes with it.

Because at some level we know that the clichés and platitudes contain an inexorable truth, not just about the game but the bigger pitch of life.  They provide us with a means to talk about the ups and downs, the defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, the triumph and the despair.  Although it’s a most physical game you cannot talk about football without reference to passion, attitude, confidence, belief, spirit.  Words that are missing from other narratives - about politics, or business, or life.

And it provides us with a framework for making sense of the ups and downs of our world.  Clichéd or no, there are always times when we need to hold on to these most fundamental of lessons.

That it is a game of two halves.  That it is, indeed, a funny old game.  That surprises will happen along the way, leaving you muttering that you just couldn’t write this script.  That you need to take each game as it comes.  But that at the end of the day, whatever the end result, if you play well you can walk away with your head held high.

Categories : Reflections

Jim MurdochNo Gravatar December 9, 2007

I think the thing about football is that it is embraces the language of the common man. You are standing there on the bleachers, several hundred men, women and children all talking in one voice. I think this expresses very much what the author William McIlvanny was talking about, if I can quote from my own blog, English in its underwear:


He has pointed out more than once that the lower down the social ladder you get, the more metaphorical (and this encompasses similes, metonymies and synecdoches), the more idiomatic, and quite simply, the more poetic the language gets.

By the way you forgot “sheer poetry in motion”.

Lillie AmmannNo Gravatar December 10, 2007

Leave it to Joanna to bring the subject back to words! Great post.

Joanna YoungNo Gravatar December 10, 2007

That’s interesting Jim, and things for sharing the link and further discussion through to your own blog. You’ve given me a different way of thinking about metaphorical language now.


Oh and thanks for the reminder about “sheer poetry in motion”!

Joanna YoungNo Gravatar December 10, 2007

Thanks Lillie, I do try and keep the writing challenges, tags and memes vaguely on topic - I think I learnt that lesson from a wise blogger, can’t quite remember who now… :-)

Chip Camden December 10, 2007

Nice job, Joanna — subscribed.

The same principle holds true for what we in America call football, too.

Metaphors are more frequent in common language, because language begins with sloppy metaphors and only takes on more precise meanings as required for more abstract thinking. Ancient Hebrew is almost devoid of abstract terms, but very rich in metaphors. Greek, on the other hand, is much more precise — in fact the language is well suited for the construction of specific terms. Latin picked up some of that and passed it on to us. I think perhaps the biggest problem with interpreting the Old Testament is that the original Hebrew thinking is so different from ours, being composed almost entirely of metaphors, and yet it comes to us via Greek and Latin interpreters who try to pin its words down to specific (and supposedly inerrant) meanings.

Joanna YoungNo Gravatar December 10, 2007

Wow, Chip, thanks for that comprehensive reply - I hadn’t realised there was so much variation in the way that languages made use of metaphors.

Just goes to show you never know where Robert’s writing challenges will take you!


Johnny Centreback December 11, 2007

Joanna. A beautifullly written piece about the broad power of the beautiful game of football. Indeed, the game’s language alone is enough to entice a person’s attention and induce admiration. Thank you for drawing attention to an under-appreciated aspect of a game that seduces people at many levels. I know from experience what it means to be caught in its spell. Every day I search the web to find examples of the beautiful for my site, The Beautiful Game Search Engine http://www.beautifulgame.com and I am frequently bedazzled not just by the beauty of the game itself but also in how it is captured: with writing that contains the power of great literature. These days, for instance, I am quite a big fan of The Independent’s James Lawton, who continues to impress me with his combination of great football wisdom and great writing. I am sure you are familiar with him and the many other great football writers found in the UK. If only you’re footballers these days were as talented as your football writers! Thanks for dropping into the football world for a visit and giving us all another reason to love our game…

Joanna YoungNo Gravatar December 11, 2007

Johnny, thanks for your comments and contribution, it’s great to hear from a fellow fan of the language of football. I cannot tell you how proud I was to see my name on your beautiful game site - alongside Arsene Wenger! (The grandfather I mentioned in my piece would have been walking to Highbury, and supporting Arsenal has been a family tradition ever since).

Actually I’m not too concerned about the quality of our footballers just now - living in Edinburgh I have been following the fortunes of the Scottish national team. Now there’s a whole other narrative - how we can triumph even when getting beat, how team, manager and players are all feted as heroes, unlike our southern counterparts…

Best wishes


Football Forum August 15, 2008

Brilliant article. It is really interesting and I enjoyed reading it, I will recommend this blog to my friends!

JoannaNo Gravatar August 23, 2008

Thanks - I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. It was a lot of fun writing it too :-)

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