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Sports aren’t played only on a field in the United States—they also play a major part in American business language. Writer Helen Huthnance brings us up to speed.
Text by: Helen Huthnance
Country: USA

mericans love their sports, so it’s not surprising that their everyday language is peppered with sports-related idioms. But idioms aren’t used only in informal speech; they are used indiscriminately in all forms of communications, especially in the business world.

Imagine doing business in the U.S. and hearing someone tell you to “keep your eye on the ball” or to “step up to the plate”. “Where’s the ball?” you might ask in the first instance, or wonder if you’re being taken to dinner in the second. In this article we’ll share with you some of the most common sports idioms so that you won’t find yourself at a total loss next time you do business in the U.S.

Baseball Idioms

Baseball is played on a large field by two teams of nine players each, who try to score runs by hitting a small ball with a bat and then running to each of the four bases—one of which is called home plate—without being struck out. Baseball is one of the most popular sports in the U.S., and many phrases that originated in the ballpark have found their way into common speech.

If something is in the ballpark, it means it is within a reasonable range. Likewise, outside the ballpark would mean beyond a reasonable range. Suppose you are interviewing for a position and the interviewer asks you how much you want to make. When you name a figure, she might reply that your desired amount was in or out of the ballpark. A ballpark figure, on the other hand, refers to a rough numerical estimate, an approximate guess. Let’s say you have to order some new merchandise, and your boss wants to know how much it will cost. If you were unsure of the actual cost, you could quote him a number and tell him it was a ballpark figure.

A person who plays hardball is behaving in an extremely determined way to get what they want. For example, if you are trying to make a deal with someone and he won’t budge on his demands, you would say he was playing hardball. Hardball is another word for baseball because it uses a hard ball, as opposed to a soft ball used in softball, which is a game similar to baseball.

Just like a pitcher would pitch, or throw, a ball during a baseball game, to pitch an idea is to make a proposal or a suggestion about something. At a business meeting you could pitch an idea about a new project or product.

To step up to the plate literally means for a player to move near home plate to prepare to hit the ball when it is pitched. Idiomatically it means to accept a challenge or to prepare to do a task. It is not uncommon for a boss to ask her employees to step up to the plate, especially when there are important projects on tight deadlines.

Football Idioms

American football is a game played between two teams of 11 players each on a rectangular field with goalposts at each end, in which the ball is in possession of one side at a time and is advanced by running or passing. American football is possibly the most popular sport in the U.S., so it is only natural that we would have many idioms that have made their way from the stadium to the boardroom.

A game plan is a strategy, originally referring to the strategy to be played on the field during a football game. It is now used to refer to any strategy: “Part of the company’s game plan is to expand into Asia.”

The kickoff, during a game of football, is when the ball is kicked to start the game. To kick off something or kick something off has thus come to mean to begin something. A presidential candidate, for example, might kick off his or her campaign with a large fund-raising event.

In a football game, you would seize the ball that someone else had thrown to you and run with it. Hence to run with something means to take over something and handle it, proceed with it, make it your own: “I didn’t want to start a new business, so I told Mary to take my idea for costume jewelry for toddlers and run with it.”

In American football, players tackle their opponents. From here, tackle a problem has entered the vernacular to mean attacking a problem with much effort. The members of a sales team might tackle the problem of decreasing sales.

Golf Idioms

Golf is a game that is played in one form or another throughout the world. The object of the game is to use clubs to hit balls into a series of holes on a course in as few strokes as possible. Because the game takes time and involves walking, it is often played while discussing business. It follows that business jargon would easily adopt golf idioms into its fold.

To make the cut refers to when a golf player must do equal or better than a certain score to continue. Accordingly, the idiom means to meet or reach a required standard; such as, “he hoped to get the contract, but his proposal did not make the cut.”

As golf has become more popular, so have more phrases from the game. A phrase that was relatively unheard of 10 years ago but is now used quite often is to tee something up. A tee is the short plastic or wooden stick upon which you place the golf ball before striking it. Therefore, to tee up has come to mean to make preparations before starting or launching something; as in, “we are teeing up for the launch of our new product tomorrow.”

General Sports Idioms

There are also many idioms that, although related to sports, are of uncertain origin and could easily apply to any number of sports.

To keep your eye on the ball is to keep your attention focused on the ball in the game or, more broadly, to keep your attention on the matter at hand, to be very focused on your objectives. For example, “If we don’t keep our eye on the ball, we could lose out to the competition.”

At this stage of the game means at this point in time: “At this stage of the game, it’s hard to tell who will win the election.”

A level playing field is a situation in which everyone has a fair chance of succeeding, where everyone plays by the same set of rules. In most ball games, teams switch sides at half time just in case the playing field is not level. In business, companies might call for less restrictive laws in order to allow them to level the playing field.

To blow the competition away means to win easily. There are many more idioms that are used in business, many of them related to sports. It takes time to learn to use them correctly, but with some practice you will soon blow the competition away.

Info box

● It is estimated that there are at least 25,000 idioms in the English language.

● “Idiom” comes from the Latin meaning “special property” and the Greek meaning “special feature“.

● Many idiomatic expressions in their original use had literal meanings, not just figurative ones.

● Most idioms cannot be easily translated into other languages.

● An early form of baseball was played in England and brought by immigrants to North America, where the modern version developed.

● By the 19th century, baseball was widely recognized as the national sport of the United States.

● American football evolved in the United States, originating from the sport of rugby football.

● American football is called football in the U.S. and Canada. The game known elsewhere as “football” is called soccer in the U.S.

● The modern game of golf originated in Scotland in the 15th Century.

● The Chinese claim that golf comes from their old game of chuiwan (“chui” means strike and “wan” means small ball).



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Staying Ahead of the Game

Americans love their sports, so it's not surprising that their everyday language is peppered with sports-related idioms. But idioms aren't used only in informal speech; they are used indiscriminately in all forms of communications, especially in the business world.

Imagine doing business in the U.S. and hearing someone tell you to "keep your eye on the ball" or to "step up to the plate" . "Where’s the ball?" you might ask in the first instance, or wonder if you’re being taken to dinner in the second. In this article we’ll share with you some of the most common sports idioms so that you won’t find yourself at a total loss next time you do business in the U.S.

Baseball Idioms

Baseball is played on a large field by two teams of nine players each, who try to score runs by hitting a small ball with a bat and then running to each of the four bases—one of which is called home plate—without being struck out. Baseball is one of the most popular sports in the U.S., and many phrases that originated in the ballpark have found their way into common speech.

If something is in the ballpark, it means it is within a reasonable range. Likewise, outside the ballpark would mean beyond a reasonable range. Suppose you are interviewing for a position and the interviewer asks you how much you want to make. When you name a figure, she might reply that your desired amount was in or out of the ballpark. A ballpark figure, on the other hand, refers to a rough numerical estimate, an approximate guess. Let’s say you have to order some new merchandise, and your boss wants to know how much it will cost. If you were unsure of the actual cost, you could quote him a number and tell him it was a ballpark figure.

A person who plays hardball is behaving in an extremely determined way to get what they want. For example, if you are trying to make a deal with someone and he won’t budge on his demands, you would say he was playing hardball. Hardball is another word for baseball because it uses a hard ball, as opposed to a soft ball used in softball, which is a game similar to baseball.

 

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Staying Ahead of the Game

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Grammar in Use

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Sports Idioms

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