Not One-Off Footballisms


So there is this American television network  that is carrying all 31 games of the European Championship, the continent’s soccer jamboree that starts today in Poland and Ukraine.

On Wednesday, ESPN hosted a telephone conference call with the on air “talent,” as the industry calls its announcers. Both of the guys – Ian Darke and Steve MacManaman – are British. So that means another month of British accents spilling out of TV sets across America. Another month? Make that more, much more.

I love many, many things English: The Beatles, Stones and Clash; Beeston Castle; Mousehole in Cornwall; Stilton cheese; Manchester United; Cockney rhyming slang; and there once was this a girl (another story). But over the years, I’ve come to draw the line at the so-called “language of soccer,” where every chip is “cheeky,” every player on the wing is “nippy,” every field is a “pitch,” every pair of cleats are “boots,” every uniform a “kit” and every big play is “massive, just massive.”

I learned my soccer (sorry, we don’t call it football and even though the Brits like to give us stick for calling it soccer, it’s actually their word, derived from aSOCCiation football) from a collection of British counselors at a summer camp in the Pocono Mountains way back in the 1960s. We got called all kinds of names for wearing strange uniforms (not kits), high socks … you get the idea. But soccer taught me about the world, in a lot of different accents and languages. My travels have been soccer travels. My friends are soccer friends.

But now, as the game is seeping deeper and deeper into the American consciousness, some pooh-bahs somewhere (ESPN, Major League Soccer, Fox Soccer to name three) have come to the conclusion that to sound authentic the game in the United States has to, must to, adopt the Britlingo of the game.

And it’s especially absurd, in my view, for M.L.S. to indulge this soaring perversion. On its own Web site,, the prose is rife with Britishisms that can confuse and mislead the casual reader, me included. Do you know what a “brace” is? I had never heard the word until a Fox Soccer report. Then it popped up again on the MLS Web site. I had to check the dictionary. And I’ve been following the game for longer than I care to remember. I had never, ever heard the term. Why confuse people? Can’t we just say “Francochino scored two goals”? Why make it mysterious.

What’s more the league – remember it’s called Major League SOCCER – has for some reason allowed a handful of teams to append the letters F.C. to their club names. That stands for Football Club. That’s fine if you’re in Burnley or Bristol (England, that is), but it’s patently absurd in the U.S. (maybe more acceptable in Canada for Toronto, a team without a nickname, imagine!, and the Vancouver Whitecaps). But F.C. Dallas? Seattle Sounders F.C. Laughable.

Fox Soccer has been the pre-eminent transgressor for a couple of reasons: The network’s lead soccer producer is a gruff (I’ve been told) Scotsman who insists on the Britlingo and some odd pronunciations of other words and names. Hence we have JuvenTOOS when every one in the world says Juventus. Just to be different? I think not. In addition, an anchor I once exchanged email with told me that the channel was catering to expat viewers who simply would not abide the Americanization of soccer lingo. Really? Next stop is the WC (water closet).

So there I am, watching Fox Soccer’s nightly report and on comes a story about something called a “tapping up” scandal. Sorry, but WTF? Again, I had never, ever heard the British term for a bribery scandal. Ever.  I also broke for the dictionary when another announcer used the word “scupper” to describe something gone wrong. So what’s a scupper? It’s a nautical term for the spaces on deck that allow water to flow back into the sea. Get it? Man overboard.

My latest pep peeve is ESPN’s wholesale plunge into Anglophilia (I know, that sounds really bad). Ian Darke has emerged as the network’s No. 1 play-by-play man. He’s as talkative as some of the worst American offenders, but what’s worse, he insists on using the most obscure British terms during broadcasts. Some players are at “sixs and sevens.” Huh? Wha? Are you kidding me. And the man simply will not allow the game to do its own talking.  Even the network’s M.L.S. broadcasts have a Brit doing the games (the generally benign Adrian Healey) and the newest entry in the national soccer TV landscape, NBC Sports Network, hired one Arlo White, another Brit. (Here I’ll give a pass to the former GolTV color man, Ray Hudson, who is most entertaining, in any language.) I don’t want to start a contROVersy, but it’s getting harder and harder to take.

These terms are not the language of soccer … they are the clichés of soccer and should be recognized for what they are. And they are spreading like Kardashians as more and more people latch on to the world’s sport and think they’re speaking the game’s lingua franca. They are not. Ask an authority as authoritative as the long-time columnist Paul Gardner, an English native who has called New York home for more than 40 years. The only Britishism he’ll use about this topic is “rubbish.” Brilliant, just brilliant.

As I mentioned before, there are many, many things I love about Britain, particularly the facility with the language of so many people. The inventiveness that is often missing in American discourse. But do we say “lorry” for truck? Do we say “loo” for bathroom? Do we say “lift” for elevator. Not bloody likely. We have our words, they have their words. Can’t we just agree to disagree on this? O.K., back to the games on the telly.

 Jack Bell is an editor in the sports department at The New York Times; and also edits and writes for the Times’s Goal blog. He can be reached at (no, not on)

44 thoughts on “Not One-Off Footballisms

  1. Is it a conscious decision of the America TV networks to employ British people to commentate and analyse the game over there? There are plenty of former footballers who are from that side of the Atlantic who played over here if they wanted a British view on things. Why not employ people like (off the top of my head) Keller, Harkes, Wegerle etc?

    Also, I’m glad to see the gradual push that football has made/is making over there. I’ve long said that the US can win the World Cup during my lifetime if they only get enough people bothered about it!

    Enjoy the tournament – as an Englishman I kind of wish I was watching as a neutral too!

  2. Getting a bit shirty, aren’t you?
    Americans tend to equate a British accents with superior intelligence or education – so to program geniuses at networks (few of whom fail to assume that the audience is slightly less bright than a rusty paper clip) figure that if they use the aural version of putting lipstick on a pig, even the stupidest dreck sounds smart when delivered in a BBC accent. Worse, they assume (correctly, I am loath to admit) that most Americans are utterly clueless about regional accents of the UK, and think that ANY British accent is classier than an American one – so some naff gargling cockney rhyming slang or an unintelligible statement from a Yorkshireman – rife with thees and lasses and thas – is considered as posh as anything uttered by Sir Laurence Olivier during a Shakespeare soliloquy. Add to that the same network twats and their obsession with faux authenticity and perceived multiculturalism and you have them hiring any git with a clue about the “Other Football” and a non-Canadian Commonwealth accent (yes, Americans tend to assume all non-North American English speakers have “English” accents) adds a dimension of genuineness to the broadcast.

  3. Some of what Bell responds to as Britishisms (“sixes and sevens”) is just pre-him. My family used “at sixes and sevens” for a state of confusion or mess in the 1940’s –and it was Middle Western through and through.

  4. Scupper the verb is a 19th century military term for disabling or destroying. It has particularly strong connotation towards sinking a ship. This has developed in to the informal usage of scuppering a plan. Scupper/scuppered has been used four times by the Guardian today*, and 159 times since the start of the year.

    * one about a rowered rescued from the Pacific following a storm, once about reef conservation, one in a story about EU fishing quotas and one in relation to Scottish politics. The first was a direct reference to the sinking of a ship, the other use were metaphorical references.

    Brace is an old hunting term which has found use as the sibling word to Hat-trick. I’d argue it’s one of those words that makes English interesting..

    Cleats, now there’s a word that’ll have us Brits puzzled.

    1. I agree “brace” was originally two dead birds. as shot by some chinless wonder whose hice was worth many thisands of pinds.

      It is now almost exclusively a football cliche, however. Who but an uninspired football hack ever uses the word these days?

    2. No, it won’t. My jeans have cleats that my belt goes through. My boat has cleats that the ropes run through.

  5. Bell may want to check the second sense of ‘scupper’, where it is noted that the ‘chiefly British’ usage is to ‘sink (a ship or its crew) deliberately’, from which we get the informal meaning ‘prevent from working or succeeding; thwart’.

    And just because ‘soccer’ is of British origin, it doesn’t mean we use it. We don’t, by the way. But I hope Bell’s tongue is in his cheek for this article, given that he says that his adoption of other Britishisms is ‘not bloody likely’.

  6. Whilst not disagreeing with a single word that Mr. Bell writes, I’d invite him to put his feelings on the subject in context by considering the absurdity of a British commentator attempting the play-by-play for a game of baseball without using any American phraseology. As a Brit who much prefers baseball over association football, I revel in the language used to describe the play…. even if some of it confuses me in the same way as “brace” understandably will most Americans. Nil nil draw anyone?

  7. Three things seem to be going on here. First the technical terms of British sports are, of course, British. No doubt Mr Bell is prepared to put up with that (even the French manage it). Second there are British usages related to the game (kit, pitch, etc.) but these are simple one-for-one equivalents which can hardly flummox an American viewer for long. Third, these British commentators, unaccountably, speak British English, with all its own lexis and idioms and rhythms. If Mr Bell can’t take that in a few sports programmes he should try to imagine what it’s like for the rest of the Anglophone world whose entertainment media are packed wall to wall with people speaking American. We try to be brave about it, choke back the tears, and survive.

    On the other hand if the only voices on the programmes are British that seems silly and unnecessary. British programmes featuring American sports usually manage to include a British English speaker among the team, one who knows (or perhaps pretends to know) something about it. The change of voice is comforting and relaxing. Similarly with other sports: we don’t have to spend all Wimbledon trying to translate John McEnroe; there are Brits about, too. To that extent Mr Bell seems to have a valid point.

    1. “We try to be brave about it, choke back the tears, and survive.”

      That must be the stiff upper lip for which the British are famous?

    2. There are no “British sports” unless you get down to very minor ones such as shinty. They are WORLD SPORTS and the terms are universal wherever English is spoken, and sometimes even where it isn’t. Only the USA has sports which virtually exclusive to its own patch.

  8. I hope they don’t start broadcasting Cricket matches over in the States. No one is going to understand the terminology used for that game.. Silly Mid Off, Silly Mid On. Bowled a googly, a Maiden Over, just to name few.

    1. For an American Anglophile’s view of cricket, and particularly its commentators, I recommend Bill Bryson’s gem from his book “Down Under” – OK, that is Australian cricket commentary, but the terminology is much the same.

      1. By far the best cricket book by a USian (or anyone for that matter -even the late Trinidadian historian C.L.R James, kicked out of the USA by McCarthy) is Mike Marqusee’s Anyone But England (1994).

        He lives in London, but his writing is less prolific these days due to chronic illness, I believe.

    2. Well, cricket is the second biggest game in the world, both in terms of active players and spectators. If you doubt that, check the combined populations of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and the quasi-religious status of cricket in the sub-continent and the same terminology is used whatever language is being spoken. In Britain, cricket is primarily an English game with marginal Welsh participation. Its slight expansion / improvement in Scotland is due in considerable measure to the presence of people of Asian heritage.

      That said, England, let alone any other part of Britain, is but a small fraction of the world of cricket. The huge amounts of money involved in India, the mega-celebrity status of the top players, and the temptations to corruption by “spot fixing” at the behest of bookies do not bode well.

      I remember Ravi Shastri saying (I paraphrase) how it was impossible for him to go anywhere or do anything in India or elsewhere on the sub-continent except in gated cocoons of the mega-rich, which he didn’t like. New Zealand and England were OK as most people didn’t know who he was, but those who did were polite and didn’t hassle him. In Australia and the Caribbean many more people recognised him, always wanted to pour alcohol down his throat, and were sometimes offended when he declined to be transformed into a drunk. (South Africa still under apartheid and in cricket exclusion at the time -not mentioned.). The USA, however, was bliss, as NOBODY knew who he was (he hadn’t been to Florida,obviously). Continental Europe was even better, though. NOBODY knew who he was and it was much more interesting than the USA.

  9. I remember watching ESPN’s coverage of the ’94 and ’98 World Cups and I was horrified at the cluelessness of the American play-by-play commentators. I much preferred watching the games on the Spanish-language channels. So I generally welcome the use of experienced British or Irish commentators on US TV. I watched the Germany vs. Portugal match the other day, and the color commentator was the American former player Kasey Keller, but of course he played in Britain for most of his quite respectable career, so his discourse was just as full of these alleged Britishisms as the British play-by-play man.

  10. I’d like to add another term bound to confuse the locals here. During the England/Sweden game a play was described as being a “bit of a damp squib”. I’m sure that left a few folk with *rollingeyes*.

    Frankly, Yanks love anything in a British accent (the GEICO gecko with a cockney accent?) – they think anything we say sounds like we’re spouting Shakespeare. Oh well – use it or lose it!

  11. Normal Brits don’t say soccer unless they want to be looked in that way suggesting you’ve been out in the sun too long. Sky is an oddity in many ways. Asked round the office – World Soccer? Who? Is it for kids?
    As for the newspapers mentioned, was it in their online editions or aimed at the US? Paper version tend not to but then the SUn and the Times are owned by the same bloke who owns SKy. Oddity.

    1. I’m sorry that your office colleagues apparently don’t read World Soccer Magazine, or that your Dad doesn’t qualify (apparently) as a “Normal Brit”. You can click on the links in the post above for links to the papers: none of the stories appears to be “aimed at the US”.

  12. Sorry, meant to say. ‘Soccer’ is an older British term – my Dad used in the 1950s and he thinks ‘foreign’ is anything outside Yorkshire.

  13. Soccer is used fairly often in the UK, but mostly formally. No one would ever (EVER) say ‘fancy catching the soccer tonight?’ to a friend, but a teacher might mention a school ‘soccer tournament’ or a TV channel may present a show with the word in the name, a la Sky Sports News’s famous ‘Soccer Saturday’. It’s an oddity, but there we go.

  14. A quick comment to go with the British commentators on ‘soccer’ matches in the US. It’s the Olympics and in the basketball, one of the commentators is American. This is may be because basketball is seen as a bit of a US game and it needs the authentic touch. But it is probably more a practical issue – I guess most basketball commentators are from the US.

  15. Soccer vs Football: the different use in Britain is purely a class issue. The upper classes mainly played Rugby (capital R because it was named after Rugby School and so a proper name), which is, technically, Rugby football; so, they called the working class game “soccer”. The working classes didn’t play rugby, so called their game football. The use of “soccer” is a class-identifier.

    To complicate matters, there is another rugby game played in the north of England: this is called rugby league, and is a professional game; the posh version is rugby union, and was, until recently, strictly amateur.

    So, we have rugby union (gentlemen behaving like hooligans), football (hooligans behaving like gentlemen) and rugby league (hooligans behaving like hooligans).

    Of course, then there’s Australian rules football, which is something else.

    1. Back in the nineteenth century the working classes did play Rugby Football (to give it its full name). They were very good at it too, and kept beating their “betters” to such an extent that for the first seven years the County Championship was held, it was won by Yorkshire six times and by Lancashire the other time with teams drawn from the textile mills and coal mines. The governing body, the Rugby Football Union, was made up of members of the ruling classes who didn’t like being humiliated by the riff-raff at their own game so they changed the rules to ensure that working men couldn’t be paid compensation for wages lost for taking time off to play. The rugby clubs in the northern industrial towns responded by seceding to form the Northern Rugby Union which later became the Rugby League. For the next hundred years the RFU behaved in the most unbelievably mean and petty way towards the RL, to the extent of blanking out the faces of players who had changed codes from the team photographs of country champions in the members room at Twickenham. It’s less than twenty years since the rift was healed, the RFU finally giving in to pressure from abroad, and in the intervening period the two codes had diverged to become very different games.

      Association football also began in the top schools. Look at the early winners of the FA (Football Association) Cup; they are amateur teams made up of the well-connected: Wanderers, Corinthians, Old Etonians, Oxford University, Royal Engineers. Those well-connected people contracted ‘Association’ to ‘Soccer’ Once again working class men took to the game and dominated it, leading to a rift between the breakaway Football League and the Football Association. Unlike the RFU, the FA legalised professionalism and the two worked together more or less, but the working-class followers of the Football League would no more call their game soccer than the NFL would.

    2. Now, now, Rugby League is fine game played at the top with skill levels and pace which RU can only dream about at the bottom of a ruck.

  16. You use sport singular yourself, ‘the world’s sport’ – is this not a pet hate of yours?
    * pet hate – a favourite object of hatred

    1. I like having a bit of fun by using Britishisms like “sport.” I don’t think I hate anything, language-wise, except when it’s used to bully, show off and/or obfuscate.

  17. And…..breathe.

    TV Sports Commentators Found Using Cliches, Hyperbole And Jargon Shock – More after the break.

    I’m no football/ soccer fan, but I have seen enough US TV sports coverage to know that both UK and US commentators are much the same breed. What I don’t know is how the US presenters and their (over-)excitement are viewed by the general public. Over here, many are teased, usually, but not always, in an affectionate way. They are popular targets for impressionists, and Private Eye magazine has, for decades, run a column of examples of their excited sayings called Colemanballs after sports commentator David Coleman:

  18. Why do so many US citizens (including many of my colleagues) think that Brits regularly use the term “WC”? They don’t. You may see it on a sign (and usually an old one), but I’ve only ever heard it being referred to as a “toilet” (or deliberately informal or slang word such as “loo”).

    1. “Loo” is very prissy and refined indeed. The same sort of people used to say “lavatory”. In the circles I inhabit “bog”, “crapper”, “shitter”, “shit ‘ouse” or “khaze” are more common. Where did the latter come from? My guess is the British raj in India, but I don’t know. There are a host of older terms, such as “dunny”, or “cludgie” in Scotland, usually referring to an outside or communal bog.

      I just call it the bog.

  19. ‘Brace’ is a very useful word for headline writers. For example, “Berisha brace sinks Sydney” tells you an awful lot in four words.

  20. Couple of points:

    Leave the likes of FC Dallas alone, Jack, you old curmudgeon you! So long as they’re not trying to usurp anyone else’s previously established identity, people/bodies have the right to call themselves what they will. The official title of today’s Italian Serie A football team based in Genoa (Genova) is, after all, the “Genoa Cricket and Football Club” (and still in English too!). Goodness knows when they last turned out a cricket side, but good on them all the same for sticking to their founding name!

    “Soccer” is fair enough as a sort of slang (and not much encountered outside the media) synonym for what all English-speakers outside North America call “football”. And if Americans want to call it “soccer” — officially, that is — then (in accordance with the argument I presented in my last paragraph), why the hell not let them? But one thing that does make “soccer” stick in my craw is its origins in the snobbish public-school (<– sensu Britannice) / Oxford and Cambridge upper-class slang of the 19th century, which the young nobs invented to enable them to distinguish “soccer” (Association Football) from what they called “rugger” (Rugby Football). Just my own “inverted snobbery”, I suppose… 🙂

  21. Rather off the topic and well out of date now, but pjharvey’s second sense of scupper is mistaken: he/she means , which is to open the sea-cocks and flood the ship, causing it to sink. After the first world war, the German High Fleet was interned at the British naval base at Scapa Flow; fearing that his ships to be taken over by the Royal Navy, the admiral of the fleet ordered that the entire fleet was to be scuttled. Also, in December 1939, the battleship Graf Spee scuttled herself in Montevideo harbour, under pressure from British & Commonwealth cruisers.

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  23. I don’t think “pitch”, “boots” and “kit” count as clichés, do they? They’re just the BrE terms for those things.

    I’m opposed to the use of cliché, of course, but apart from that I can’t quite see the reason for the author’s anger here. This sort of thing just happens, I think. Here in the UK, American Football presenters (as opposed to American football presenters) talk about the OFFense and the DEFense, and the field, and the game, and use (what I take to be) clichés like “red zone” and “game face”. Some of our domestic sticklers rail against it, too, I bet, but there’s surely no point in doing so.

    By the way, the “soccer” thing is complicated, as things in the UK are usually complicated, by considerations of class. The term was traditionally used by privately-educated types, to distinguish the sport from “rugger”. And it’s very much (cliché alert) the Working Man’s Game here, or at least it was. So the use of “football” has long been a signifier of authenticity: of being a “proper supporter”. That was the case long before people became aware that Americans called it anything!

    The term “soccer” was actually gaining ground in England and Scotland in the 70s, and then in the 80s people began to hear “soccer” as an Americanism. And the assumption, I think, was always that there were two groups of people who knew nothing about the game: posh types, and Americans (not entirely accurate in either case, but that was what people felt). So the association (ha!) between (a) the use of the term “soccer” and (b) inauthenticity as a fan was then strengthened anew.

    But I think it needed to be there in the first place, and the reason it was there in the first place was not nationality, but class. In other words, it’s not quite true that “soccer” is *our* word, if *we* are taken to be the sort of horny-handed State-educated types who’ve traditionally supplied the game in this country with its fans and players.

  24. Can you even have a “play-by-play” commentator in a game as fluid as football?

    I have some sympathy for Jack Bell’s view on being expected to understand weird foreign phrases. I’d like to take a rain-check on them but as I don’t know what a rain-check is, I can’t.

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