Chip Kelly, the coach of the (American) football Philadelphia Eagles was questioned the other day about the Eagles’ play calling: specifically, why relatively few plays have been called for star running back DeMarco Murray to carry the ball. Kelly replied in part: “I would love to get everybody in a right lather and going, but when we’re not having success running the ball at all, then it’s tough to say, ‘Hey, we’re just going to make sure we get [running back DeMarco Murray] 22 carries and he’s lathered up.'”
OK, so the “lather” thing is taken from horse racing, referring to the frothy sweat of a horse. The OED cites an 1837 novel: “Miss Bell had already exercised her [a mare] so well, that, to use a jockey term, she was all in a lather.” The novel is British, but I sense that “in a lather” has been used in racing circles on both sides of the Atlantic.
You’ll notice that Kelly used the term, figuratively, in two different expressions. “In a lather” is a venerable one, but traditionally has been used to mean being in a state of high anxiety, irritation and/or agitation. The OED’s first citation is from Frances Trollope, quoting an American in 1849: “Don’t be in a lather, father, before you are shaved. I’ll do your job, I expect, if you won’t be in such a tarnation fuss.”
“Lathered up” seems to have departed from horse-racing parlance rather more recently. Searching Google News, I find Kelly is not the only American coach to lately use it about human athletes, especially football players (who are often described with words and expressions traditionally associated with animals). A Louisiana college football coach was quoted as saying about a receiver, “It’s hard to get into a rhythm until you get lathered up a little bit, it’s like a running back.” And the San Francisco 49ers coach said of an injured player, “he will be out there and going through that extended stretch that we do and try to get him into the team, get him warmed up and lathered up.”
But the real reason Kelly’s quotes spawned this post is the first two words in “a right lather.” The OED defines this “right” as “colloq. (chiefly Brit. and Irish English). As an intensifier (usu. in derogatory and ironical contexts): complete, absolute, total, utter.” It cites The Observer writing in 1974: “‘The Government did not know that there was no settlement in writing, and how could an order apply to something which did not exist,’ he said. ‘The Government made a right mess of it.’”
I would hazard to say that until Chip Kelly spoke, this usage of “a right” has never been uttered, non-ironically, by an American.