10 Sports Metaphors Used in Business and Where They Come From
Sports jargon pervades many aspects of life, especially the business world. You’ve probably heard them in the office, things like “losing the score” or some project that got “abandoned.” This is the etymological origin of these popular sports phrases, and for the uninitiated, what they really mean.
Ball at their court
This phrase comes from tennis or basketball, depending on who you ask. According to Betty and Elizabeth McLaren Kirkpatrick’s book Clichés: Over 1,500 Phrases Researched and Explained , it originated from tennis, probably in England , and has existed since the mid-twentieth century.
This means that you have completed your part of the job or transaction and “sent the ball to their court,” so you are waiting for the “ball” or information, documents, product, etc., to return to you. Alternatively, the ball can be “on your side,” meaning people are waiting for your action.
Press all over the court
In basketball, full-court press is a hyper-aggressive defense strategy in which players defend the opposing team along the entire length of the court, rather than half of it. The phrase itself originated in 1950 when Gene Johnson, the head coach of the University of Wichita, developed a defensive style. Merriam-Webster suggests that the first known use was in 1952 .
In business, this phrase means to make every effort to accomplish a task or goal, but according to Christine Ammer’s Dictionary of American Heritage Idioms , it was not used in such conversation until the late 1900s (probably in the late 60s or 70s years) after basketball became more popular due to the fact that the games were broadcast on television.
Down the count
When a boxer falls into the ring, he “loses by count” and the referee counts down the allotted 10 seconds when the fallen boxer must rise. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (AHDI) suggests that this phrase was used regularly by the 1920s , especially when describing boxing matches, but one of the earliest uses of the phrase can be found in the 1900 Newark Daily Advocate .
If someone says this in the office, it means that they have a short-term failure, but they are not completely “upset”, which can also be related to boxing, that is , confused and unconscious. AHDI calls this idiom Late 1800s Americanism (1885-1890). In this case, being a “loser” means that there is no prospect or chance of recovery from failure. It can also mean that you are broke or destitute.
Under the wire or before the wire
In horse racing, “wire” is what is traditionally pulled over the finish line. According to AHDI, this phrase became common language in the second half of the 1800s in both America and Australia . An early example of this was used in How the Derby Was Won, published in 1889 in Scribner’s Magazine :
When the tribune came to an end, Timarch approached the Petrel, and both rushed to the “wire”, encouraged by applause from the audience. They finished the first half-mile of the race head and head, overlapping under the wire, and in earnest began a mile that still had to be overcome.
Thus, if you do something “out of the wire”, it means that you did it at the very last moment or at the very last moment. “Down to the wire” means that the winner is determined at the last moments of the race. If something is wrong, you have almost no time to complete your task.
The phrase “Theotokos” originated in association with the football teams of Catholic colleges, most notably Notre Dame. According to Wikipedia, this expression dates back to the 1930s and refers to a very long transition, made in desperation, with little chance of success. It wasn’t until the 1975 NFL playoffs between the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings that the term became widespread.
After the winning touchdown, Cowboys defender Roger Staubach said: “I closed my eyes and said ‘Hail Mary.’ Prior to this game, such transmissions were called “alley-up”. But later the term “Mother of God” became a popular term for long transitions and any plans or last attempts when the prospects do not look good.
On the bench and the strength of the bench
The “bench” is where the players sit when they are not in the current game. They are sitting here to rest, or because they lack the skills necessary to help the team at this stage of the competition. The phrase “on the bench” probably originated from baseball (referring to a dugout), according to the AHDI, but has been applied to several sports, including football and basketball, since it came into figurative use in the early 1900s . If your boss puts you on the bench at work, it means that your skills are not needed at the moment, or management does not think you are capable of performing certain tasks.
The phrase “bench strength” also comes from baseball and refers to a group of capable substitutes who are currently “on the bench” waiting to play. According to Peter Bengelsdorf, author of Idioms in the News, the first uses of “lying down” and “sitting on a bench” appeared in articles about baseball as early as the 1940s . But it was only after coverage of the 1972 Democratic National Convention that the term was popularized outside of sports when Frank Mankiewicz , George McGovern’s campaign director, said, “We’ve got a good bench,” referring to McGovern’s supporters crushing support for abortion rights. …
In your wheelhouse
According to Neil Serven, associate editor at Merriam Webster, the term “wheelhouse” comes from baseball and refers to the area within the batter’s swing where they have a better chance of touching the ball. The specific origin of the term as a metaphor for the “golden spot,” Servin tells the Chicago Tribune , is Bill Rigney’s baseball article in the San Francisco Chronicle, dated May 11, 1959:
He just doesn’t seem to see them the way he used to. Take today, for example. He had a pair that went straight into his wheelhouse — the kind he used to knock him out of sight — and he fouled them.
The term “wheelhouse” can also refer to the central position of the ship’s helm where everything is within reach, but this popular usage is most likely associated with baseball. You also have a “wheelhouse” in business, but this belongs to your area of expertise or the type of work that you are most comfortable with.
This is the Bush League
In most professional sports, the bush league is a minor or amateur league with low-level players. This applies to teams that have played “with the stick” or “in the bush,” as opposed to professional teams that play in larger cities. According to Brian Ashcraft, author of The Jargonaut Express: Essential Idioms for the Astute Business Speaker , the phrase became popular with the advent of baseball in the early 20th century.
In the business world, bad, unethical, or unprofessional behavior is called the bush league, and it reflects the original meaning of the phrase. According to the Internet Dictionary of Etymology , by 1906 the term was already synonymous with “mean, petty, unprofessional.” The term is still used today in Major League Baseball .
Dropped the ball
This phrase refers to a huge mistake football and rugby players make (groping), or a missed catch in baseball. According to AHDI , this phrase had come to be regularly used as a metaphor for error in the United States by the 1950s, but one of the earliest known idiomatic uses comes from Marcus Goodrich’s 1941 Delilah :
Lieutenant Fitzpatrick and Ensign Snell were astonished. Even though the danger hung overhead like a sword on a thread unraveling, the captain never interfered with his three officers, never missed an opportunity to give them a chance to see it through, unless, as Ensign Snell put it, “they were not going to throw ball”. … “
If you drop the ball at work, then you made a big mistake and either you or your colleagues will suffer for it.
It’s Slam Dunk
The term “flapping dunk”, which comes from basketball, refers to the spectacular movement of wedging the ball straight into the hoop. This move may have originated as early as 1910 , but the first to slam dunk in a regular game was Olympian Joe Fortenberry in 1936. Of course, then they were called “dunk-shot”, not “cotton- dunk”. … “
The term slam dunk itself originated in 1975 or 1976 by the colorful Lakers announcer Chick Hearn , and ADHI suggests it has been used figuratively since 1980 . If someone says that something is “dunk”, it means that it is true. Alternatively, someone might say you did a dunk, which means you did an amazing job.
Even if you already knew what these sports colloquial expressions mean, you now know their background and can use them with confidence. However, sports metaphors – if you move on to another idiomatic style – are just the tip of the iceberg. There are tons of confusing terms, metaphors and buzzwords out there , but they never get confused if you take a few minutes to educate yourself.