We first study metaphors and similes; analogies and allusions, in junior high school and some of us still struggle to remember the rules that define them. (If it has “like” or “as” it’s a simile.) In college we endure hours of literary analysis, painfully dissecting an author or poet’s words to carve out the deeper meanings as illustrated by the use of certain metaphors until a cigar is just a cigar. But I don’t think that most of us realize just how often, and just how naturally, we use metaphors and similes in life. Especially sports metaphors.
When a friend of mine used a fairly common analogy to describe the completion of a task, I realized that sports metaphors abound in our common discourse. In this case, we’d “moved the ball down the field.” Later, we’d “kicked it into the end zone,” meaning that the task was complete and the game over, uh, the job was finished. Baseball metaphors are also very useful: Who among us hasn’t used a phrase containing “home run” to describe success? Then there are the familiar “at bat” situations: He struck out with the brunette, but he got to second base with the blonde. Even golf makes a contribution to the language: A hole in one. Football, as in the first example, has suggested many ways to describe life’s everyday challenges: He dropped the ball on that one. Swimming: Take the plunge. Car racing: Spun out. Basketball: Slam dunk. Hockey: Score! Chess: Well played, my friend. The list seems endless, and any time one needs to describe achievement, challenges, future hopes and dreams, one has a plethora of phrases and images to draw on from the wide world of sports.
I’m a moderate sports fan. Okay, I watch baseball on occasion, football twice a year. Basketball, rarely if ever. But I love the way sporting terms have become part of the fabric of our language, so that even a non-sports fan — like me —can understand and use them. If they come to mind so easily, they may be shopworn; but, at the same time, these common phrases are more valuable than overused. Sports-speak is a verbal shorthand, drawing the listener quickly into the speaker’s experience. If sport itself is a metaphor for life, why not use it in everyday language? Most of us aren’t judging spoken language in the same way we judge written language; that is, avoid the overused in writing, but don’t worry about it in spoken language. It’s how we understand each other.
It speaks to the universality of sport that these catch phrases develop and are so common. I imagine that Medieval conversationalists used jousting terms to describe everyday situations: Gadsooks, man, he was unhorsed by that damsel! Fell for her like a third-rate knight. I think that generally these turns of phrase are used to illustrate something humorous, which takes the conversation from simply relating information to story-telling, and a well-chosen sports metaphor enhances the story so that the teller doesn’t have to go into laborious detail (although some certainly will).
In our day-to-day lives, sometimes we strike out, other times we win by a nose. We almost never run out of sports-speak and when we do, game’s over.