20 November 2010

Football Idioms

When we are using English as an International Language (or 'English as a Lingua Franca', ELF), Jennifer Jenkins suggests we should avoid use of idioms. For example, she notes that to chill out causes problems for international users of English, and it would be better instead to use relax (Jenkins, 2009, p. 45).

I wonder about this, as it seems to me that, if we avoid all colourful idiomatic phrases, our language becomes incredibly bland. Sometimes I think we should instead be looking to enrich the language, by adopting new idioms from around the world, rather than avoiding idiomatic usage. On the other hand, Jenkins is absolutely right, that we must always be sensitive about how we express ourselves, and if we see that listeners are failing to understand something, we should endeavour to rephrase our ideas in more straightforward terms.

I was thinking about idiomatic usage as I was watching an English Premier League game last night, Arsenal v. Tottenham. And I noted down the following idiosyncratic football idioms from the commentators:
  • Arshavin was on his bike
  • Arshavin wasn't going to allow him to get up a head of steam
  • Arsenal can put it to bed before half time.
  • in comparison with the Manchester derby a couple of weeks ago, chalk and cheese
  • credit again to Gallas for slamming the door shut
  • that would be a real feather in the cap for Harry Redknapp
Football commentary is full of these phrases, some of which seem to be idiosyncratic for football. Are they clich├ęs, reflecting the tedious usage of commentators who don't have the time or imagination to think up something fresh and original? Or are they part of the colourful, idiosyncratic language associated especially with football commentary?

One way or another, I feel sorry for foreign language learners who struggle to grasp what is going on. A very common phrase in football commentary is under the cosh, to indicate that a team is under a lot of pressure; and I can imagine a learner of English looking up cosh, finding it is some kind of weapon, and then puzzling over this phrase. In reality, most native speakers who know the phrase under the cosh have no clue what a cosh is.

So, should we avoid using such phrases in international settings? My feeling is that it's fine to use them just so long as you are always sensitive about the potential for being misunderstood and are then prepared to rephrase yourself using other terms. In linguistics, we say this is part of accommodation, and it is an essential skill for successful international communication.


Jenkins, J. (2009). Exploring attitudes towards English as a Lingua Franca in the East Asian context. In K. Murata & J. Jenkins (Eds.) Global Englishes in Asian contexts: Current and future debates (pp. 40-56). Basingstoke, UK: Continuum.