The Power Play of Sports Jargon

Ever since I became an executive in sports & entertainment, people started sending me examples of over-the-top uses of sports jargon. From every unnecessary quip like “Please quarterback this project for me”, there’s also the poetic usage such as “The candidate won by a nose.” My slam-dunk favorite sports jargon gone too far came from The Onion in this 2014 open letter from a father to his son:

Son, I think it’s high time you and I sat down and touched base. As your father, it’s been difficult watching you drop the ball these past few months […] Your head just hasn’t been in the game, and sadly for me, I’ve had a ringside seat as you’ve repeatedly struck out. I’m in your corner, son, and I truly want to help you come out swinging and rally.

If you’re trying to beat that one, you might as well throw in the towel.

Amusing as that may be, the passage reminds me that sports jargon is often over-used – in business and in life. As I’ve always been a proponent of simple and clear communication, it occurred to me that sports jargon might be getting in the way. After all, not everyone has a sports background and many of the phrases are confusing enough that not everyone understands what they mean.

Josh Chetwynd’s fun book “The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors: A Compendium of Competitive Words and Idioms” is the perfect solution to the problem. Chetwynd provides definitions and origins for many of the most commonly-used sports terms in English. Even for someone like me who prides himself in knowing a fair amount about sports, some of the entries were surprising.

Let’s look at the term “power play.” Many people recognize power play as coming from hockey. Here’s a representative example:

a situation in which a team has a numerical advantage over its opponents while one or more players is serving a penalty, characterized by an emphasis on offensive play.
“moments later Pavelski scored on a rebound during the power play”

However, that’s not what the term always meant and likely didn’t even originate in hockey. In the 1920’s football, power play referred to “a ball carrier barreling down the field under the heavy protection of his teammates.” As football became a more pass-centric sport, power plays became less and less common. The term entered hockey in the early 1930’s to refer to the (at that time) rare situation when a defenseman would abandon their normal position close to their own goal and take part in the offensive game plan. If one team had less players than the other due to a penalty, it was simply referred to as being short-handed. It wasn’t until the late 1930’s that this penalty situation became known as a power play and didn’t enter common use until the 1940’s.

If you’re confused about sports or just curious where the terms come from, The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors covers all the bases and is hands-down the best book on the subject that I’ve read. It’s worth your time – don’t worry, I wouldn’t send you on a wild goose chase.

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One Response to The Power Play of Sports Jargon

  1. seaofgold2012 October 13, 2018 at 7:34 am #

    Trying to reproduce that letter using jargon from equestrian sports. “Dear Son, sure you have taken some hard falls over the jumps, but you just have to get back in the saddle and face those six-foot oxers. Life moves at a gallop. If you want win the challenge cups of life, you have to keep your eye on the fence line, and cut those turns to beat the clock to the finish line.”

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