CHARLOTTE, NC. Memorial Day kicks off the summer season for many people. It also brings about a void in the lives of many non-baseball-loving sports fans. Except for a handful of remaining games in the NBA championship and the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the summer is a long day’s journey into the night waiting for football to return. Which is why we need to examine the story-rich topic of sports metaphors.
So today, Myth Trivia looks at several common sports metaphors that are now part of our everyday vocabulary.
We know this thanks to extensive research by sports journalist and former baseball player Josh Chetwynd. Chetwynd compiled an exhaustive collection of idioms and phrases in his book The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors: A Compendium of Competitive Words and Idioms.
Best of all, however, he explains their origins in detail.
Let’s take a look.
Thanks to his invention of the curveball, Arthur “Candy” Cummings was enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Cummings was an expert at flinging clam shells he found in a way that caused them to make astonishing movements. Cummings experienced an epiphany. He realized he could do the same thing with a baseball as he did with clam shells.
By 1867, after four long years of trial and error, the right-handed pitcher had mastered his then-un-hittable pitch: the curveball.
In today’s jargon, the unexpected movement of the curveball is now a common metaphor to explain a surprising development in business. As in, “That jerk just threw me a curveball.”
In baseball, of course, skeptics claimed the curveball didn’t really curve. They said it was just an optical illusion. Dizzy Dean put an end to that speculation, however, when he boldly stated
“Go stand behind a tree, and I’ll hit you with an optical illusion.”
In the English language, “punt” has many meanings. For example, it describes a shallow flat-hulled boat good for traveling down a stream. Since the early 18th-century “punter” has also been slang referring to a gambler.
Most commonly in the U.S. however, “punt” refers to a kick in a football game. The punt usually happens on 4th down, when an offense no longer has any real option to advance the ball, and so must kick it to the opposing team. In a way, it’s something of a desperation move.
How that kick ends up when it heads for the other side is often anybody’s guess.
Linguistically, the term refers to the idea of retreating or backing out of a deal before it gets worse.
Or some other kind of desperation move where the individual employing it doesn’t have a clue how it might work out.
The derivation of the word “punt” appears to be a mispronunciation of the older word bunt which meant, in baseball, to strike or push. Rugby began using it around 1845, and the B changed to become a P.
In the early days of football, the sport employed a variety of punts, such as a punt-out and a punt-on. The only one left is the traditional 4th down punt we know today.
This surviving fourth-down staple is what inspired people to throw their hands up and say, “I’m punting” when they couldn’t solve a problem.
“THERE’S THE RUB” FROM LAWN BOWLING:
Might as well bring Bill Shakespeare into the conversation while we’re at it. This one derives from, believe it or not, Hamlet’s famous soliloquy which begins “To be or not to be.”
In Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, the Danish prince says, “To die—to sleep. To sleep! perchance to dream; ay, there’s the rub.”
Everyone knows the phrase means confronting an obstacle or difficult situation. But what, precisely, is a “rub”?
Shakespeare actually borrowed the term from lawn bowling. British nobility employed gardeners who made certain their bowling greens were smooth, much like putting greens in golf today. Over time and usage, wear and tear could lead to some bumps or nicks on the bowling surface which could impede the movement. Such imperfections were known as rubs.
Shakespeare also used the phrase metaphorically in Richard II with the dialogue “’Twill make me think the world is full of rubs.”
“STYMIE” FROM GOLF:
“Stymie” is a 17th-century Scottish term that today refers to a difficult situation offering no immediate solution.
By the 1800s, “stymie” had made its way into the ranks of golf. According to the rules of the day, a golfer could only pick up an obstructing player’s ball if both balls were within a half of a foot of each other.
The official citation came in 1834 when the rule book stated the following.
“With regard to Stimies the ball nearest the hole if within six inches shall be lifted.”
Two decades later, in an 1857 monograph about golf, the rule was described in this manner: “The ball stimying may be lifted if within six inches of that of the player, until the stroke is done.”
By the early 20th century, stymie moved beyond its golf context, gaining its modern meaning in the process. When the popularity of the game expanded, a unified rulebook on both sides of the Atlantic was adopted in 1952. In the process, golf’s gurus abolished the word “stymie” from the game altogether. But by this time, the word had already drifted out of the realm of golf. Now the words is taking on a similar secular meaning, often as a colloquial synonym for “baffle” or “get in the way of.”
As in, “Don’t let that problem stymie you.”
One popular member of the Little Rascals and Our Gang comedies in the mid-20th century was known as “Stymie” He tended to be “baffled” by many things that occurred in each short film. Today, the term is not frequently used, save in extreme instances where it describes bafflement or random obstacles preventing the resolution of a difficult problem or situation.
But even then, its use is infrequent.
At this point, Porky Pig would tell us “Th-th-th-that’s all, Folks!” And so it is for today. But we have quite a few more sports metaphors we’re likely to bring up in future columns. These should help you get you through the annual spring and summer void until 2019’s fall high school, college and NFL football seasons get underway.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor is an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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