The Terminology of the Beautiful Game

Partially inspired by this great BBC article entitled ”In the six’ and football’s other strange Americanisms’ which looks at the interesting terminological differences which exist between soccer and football, and partially due to that fact that it is a great passion of mine, I thought I would dedicate this post to introducing footballing terminology, as well as looking at a few interesting terms and tracking down their roots.

Ok, I know, the football season is more or less over and perhaps I should leave the subject alone, dust off my cricket whites and wait for the rain to stop, but hopefully you’ll grant me just this one post before the summer hibernation.

First of all, it is of course worth mentioning that, due to the universal nature of the game, there are ready equivalents for the vast majority of terms in the game. It is often said that football is a universal language and it’s very easy to pick up a few things in the midst of a foreign crowd with the familiar chants, the same colourful language that is best left untranslated and ultimately, the same game unfolding before you.

However, beyond this initial level of terms used to describe basic physical phenomena, there is a rich terminology that enjoys its own personal history in each culture. How about the English term ‘nutmeg’, for intance, meaning to put the ball through a player’s legs? The origin of this term in English is hotly contested; some say it comes from cockney rhyming slang for leg while others claim it is an extension of ‘nuts’, referring to the testicles of the players through whose legs the ball has been passed. In French, meanwhile, it becomes ‘un petit pont’ (‘a little bridge’ – although French commentators will also use the English term), while in Italian it is ‘un tunnel’ (a tunnel). Lastly, one of my favourite terms in French football (albeit one that is fairly rarely used) has to be ‘un caviar’ meaning a great pass (we could maybe say ‘a gem’ or ‘a peach’ in English).

One interesting collection of terms which demontrates the relationship between European languages well is that used when describing goals scored. In English, two goals can be called ‘a brace’ (meaning a pair), while a set of three is a ‘hat-trick’, coming from the same term as used in cricket which was adopted after HH Stephenson took three consecutive wickets and was subsequently presented with a hat. The French uses a (non-)translation of this term (coup du chapeau’), and this is indicative of much footballing terminology in Europe which attests to the English roots of the game with many terms calqued to their new language (‘gol’ in Italian, for example, taken from the English ‘goal’).

Italian, on the other hand, deals with multiple goals in quite a different way: two goals becomes ‘una doppietta’ (a double), three is ‘una tripletta’ (triple) and while four and five can be called a ‘quaterna’ and a ‘cinquina’ respectively, there exist three much more interesting terms.

A set of four is often referred to as ‘un poker’, meaning ‘four of a kind’ and developing from the card game of the same name, while five goals can be simply called a ‘pokerissimo’ or a ‘manita’ (‘a little hand’ – referring to the five fingers).

This use of calques and various synonyms is indicative of the dual-layered vocabulary that exists in (perhaps all) European footballing terminology; in Italian, for example, we regularly find words borrowed or translated from the English alongside synonymous native terms (e.g. ‘un corner/un calcio d’angolo’ for the English ‘corner’).

This feature of the terminology finds a practical application in sports journalism where elegant variation (using synonyms or near-synonyms to avoid the use of repetition) is one of the most widely-used stylistic techniques. In a typical article you could find one player referred to by three or four different names as the journalist goes to extreme lengths to avoid repetition, while the amount of assumed contextual knowledge on the part of the reader is huge. For example, a player such as Mario Balotelli is often referred to as ‘Mario’, ‘Balotelli’, ‘SuperMario’, ‘il centravanti’ (the centre-forward), ‘l’attaccante italiano’ (the Italian attacker) among others…

This feature is also common in English and French journalism, and it is very interesting to see how the nature of the terminology available shapes our ability to communicate.

Of course, this post has only been able to scratch the surface of what footballing terminology has to offer and I haven’t been able to even comment on the vast array of idioms and expressions that exist. However, if you are interested in delving a bit deeper, this French football phrasebook has loads of phrases on offer alongside English translations, while this ‘Learn Italian’ article from The Guardian provides a good starting point for calcio fans.


4 responses to “The Terminology of the Beautiful Game”

  1. A very interesting post. I may quote it in a future blog post of my own, adding Catalan and Spanish equivalents. I also specialise in sports translations, from French, Spanish and Catalan to English.

    1. Hi Timothy, really glad you enjoyed it! Quote away!
      It’s nice to know there are other sport translators out there – I just had a quick nosey on your website and it looks like you’ve worked on some awesome projects, and you’re certainly in the right city to be a football fan! Really enjoyed your blog too by the way, I’ll be sure to check back regularly. Your post on the pronunciation of Camp Nou was an eye-opener!

  2. […] culturally bound terms and the use of techniques such as elegant variation (briefly explored in this post on my blog) remain obvious challenges, but more major structural work, including the reforming of […]

  3. […] recently stumbled upon an article by fellow specialist sports translator Joseph Lambert entitled The Terminology of the Beautiful Game. Joseph focuses on terminology in his source languages: French and Italian. My source languages are […]

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