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Word Games: The Language Of Sport

The story behind five curious sports terms


I love sports – and the words that games give us.

My daughter asked what “par” means the other day. I told her it’s a golf term that refers to the number of strokes a good player is expected to use to sink his or her ball on any given hole. The more interesting question followed: where does the word come from?

Par is Latin for equal. When you par a hole, you equal the expected score. Use fewer strokes and you’re under par; use more and you’re over par. Par first appeared as a golfing reference in 1898. The figure of speech “par for the course” dates back to 1928.

Love is a tennis term: Federer is up, 40-love. In the tennis sense, love has nothing to do with romance; it means zero. A popular theory is that it’s an anglicization (i.e., Englishification) of the French word l’oeuf, which means “egg”. Of course: an egg’s shape resembles a zero. Leave it to the French to get a food reference into sports parlance – and then abandon it when everyone else follows suit. They now use “zéro” instead. Incroyable!

In baseball, the bleachers are the uncovered seats out beyond the outfield, where sunscreen, binoculars, and cold beer are the order of the day. The term appears in 1889, when these seats were simple board benches that got bleached by the sun.

Southpaw is baseball slang for a left-hander. I like the etymological explanation that the word was coined when baseball diamonds typically had home plate oriented to the west. That meant a pitcher’s left hand (or paw) would be to the south when facing a batter. However, the term is found in earlier references from boxing. So much for pastoral roots.

Umpire is the odd-looking word for an official who arbitrates between two teams in a sporting match. It derives from the French nonper – non “not” + per “equal”. Umpires are not the equals of the players; they always have the last say.

When fans in the bleachers disagree with an umpire, they may call him another name: “bum” or “idiot” or something more colorful and fricative.

Which, on a sunny day at Fenway, is par for the course.

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