Sports have been around for ages, and have introduced many phrases we take for granted into common vernacular. Because of the human obsession over sports, many of these have acquired figurative meanings that have distanced themselves from their origins or adapted wordage for their situations.
Among many are the following phrases that have acquired a primarily figurative sense:
- play hardball: First occuring in TIME in 1976, it originally referred to playing baseball (the companion to softball). It then occurred in 1980 meaning uncompromising in all but one occurence since .
- slam dunk: First occured in the TIME/COHA corpora in 1974 referring to the basketball move. One instance showed a figurative meaning in 1993 of being a sure thing, which soon became the main meaning throughout the 2000s.
- blow-by-blow: The boxing brought many terms into our language, including this one referring to a detailed description of a fight. It showed up in COHA in 1922 and was extended to describe an airfight in 1940 (during WWII). As soon as 1941 the first reference not dealing with a fight cropped up, and by the late 1940s all references were figurative.
- low blow: Also from boxing, this phrase showed up in 1937 in COHA, meaning a blow to the groin (strictly forbidden in the sport). It then showed up in a figurative sense by 1952 in TIME.
- (out/down) for the count: Referring to the count of 10 that would end a round of boxing, it first appeared in COHA in 1920. By 1922, the meaning had been extended to being knocked unconscious, and COHA shows a figurative reference in 1944.
- head start: From horse racing, this first occurred in COHA and TIME in 1920, but it had already acquired its metaphorical meaning.
- skate on thin ice: While making a direct reference to the sport that inspired it, the first mention found in COHA is in 1869, already figuratively referring to a precarious situation.
- chip in: Although apparently the phrase came in referring to playing cards (as in poker chips), the first time it shows up in COHA is in 1879, when it already meant helping out.
- off the hook: From fishing, this term first showed up in COHA in 1840; however, it was already used in the same way we use it today: no longer being responsible. There are many mentions of fishing after that, with the next figurative usage showing up in the 1930s, when telephones off the hook are also mentioned. By the 1950s, it had eclipsed any other meaning.
Also examined were some phrases that allowed for substitute words:
- get the * rolling: While the phrase seemed to have used with "ball" most frequently due to the games played by the late 1700s, COHA simultaneously shows "balls", "cars", and "wagons" rolling in 1940. However, semantically it mostly means "to get something started", and there is reference to "project", "roundups", "production", "activity", "action", and "party".
- roll with the *: While one would most often couple this boxing phrase with "punch", one can likely roll with any violent attack directed at oneself. COHA shows that you can roll with "attack" and "hit", as well as other unpredictable things: "change", "future", "current", and "crowd".
- win by a *: Originally one would win a horserace by a "nose", but now we talk about winning by a large or small majority, a comfortable or narrow margin, sometimes as close as a "hair".