English on the Internet - English Magazine


April 25, 2000

England is, believe it or not, a nation of sportsmen. We value our sport, and like to think of England as being one of the best in the world when it comes to sports like football, rugby and cricket. Unfortunately, our national teams in these sports never quite manage to live up to this, rather hopeful, image! However, because sport is so important to us, sporting terms and phrases are now quite common in the English language. This week, I'm going to describe a handful of these phrases, what they mean, and how they came about.

Our first sport: Boxing. Over a hundred years ago, bare-knuckle boxing matches were common. The number of rounds was unlimited and so the match would continue go on until one competitor submitted or was unable to continue. To judge the ability of the competitors to continue, two parallel lines were drawn / scratched in the earth at the centre of the ring. At the start of each round, each boxer had to come to his line. If he did, then he was "up to scratch". If he didn't or couldn't, then he was "not up to scratch" and so lost the match. These expressions are now used to describe the fitness of someone or something for his / her / its intended function.

Our second sport: Cricket. In cricket, the objective of the bowler (the man who throws the ball) is to knock two "bails" (short horizontal sticks) off the top of three "stumps" (longer, vertical sticks). The object of the batsman is to defend these bails by hitting the ball away. Occasionally, the bowler will throw the ball, and the batsman will step forward, attempt to hit it, and fail. When this happens, the ball may bounce behind the batsman, and be caught by the "wicket keep". He may then use it to knock the bails off the stumps. It is then said that he has "stumped" the batsman, or that the batsman has been "stumped". Today, anyone who is fails to think of the correct action for a situation is said to be "stumped".

Staying with cricket for the moment: Occasionally, the bowler may throw the ball hard into the ground in front of the batsman. This causes the ball to bounce high up towards the batsman's head. This is a unnatural move, and usually surprises the batsman who has to duck quickly to avoid being hit. Today, people who have received a big surprise can be said to be "bowled over". This can also apply to people who fall in love at first sight - one person is "bowled over" with the other.

Our third sport: Snooker. Snooker is a game like pool - the objective is to use a stick (called a "cue") to knock a white ball against a coloured ball, to knock that ball into a pocket. In some instances, a player may be clever enough to position the balls such that his / her opponent cannot directly hit the coloured ball with the white ball. This difficult situation is called a "snooker". Anyone caught in it is said to be "snookered". So, to be "snookered" is to be put into a very difficult or impossible situation. Going back to the cue: The cue is specially shaped to be narrow at one end (with a tip for striking the balls with) and wide at the other end (easy to hold). It would be madness for a player to hold the narrow end, and hit with the big end. (s)he would be said to have "the wrong end of the stick". Therefore, in everyday speech, to "have the wrong end of the stick" is to have the wrong idea about a situation or a way of doing things.

Finally: horse racing. There are many horse related expressions, but I'll just mention two of them. Firstly, in a race, a horse with its "nose in front" is the horse that is currently winning or leading the race. So, to have your "nose in front" means that you are winning, or doing better than someone else. The second expression is more funny: "straight from the horse's mouth". If a horse is ill, its owner could ask the trainer what is wrong. Alternatively, (s)he could go and examine the horse and find out "at first hand". Therefore, the to "get it straight from the horse's mouth" is to go to the original source of the information and ask them.

There is a funny story about concerning this expression. The expression is not meant to be insulting, but some people do not like being compared to a horse. Every Christmas day, our Queen makes a live speech to the nation on TV. Occasionally, the newspapers get hold of the text of the speech several days before Christmas, and publish it. The palace will then sue the papers in the courts. The last time this happened, a TV news team made a report about the court case by saying that "The Sun [a newspaper] must prove that it is in the nation's interest to read the text of the Queen's speech before Christmas, as opposed to getting it straight from the horse's mouth on Christmas day"........

If you'd like to hear about some more expressions, or if you'd like to suggest a topic for an article, then please don't delay to email me at dareid@btinternet.com

by Duncan - Great Britain, enjoys writing to penpals from all over the world

© April 2000 English on the Internet www.aj.cz