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Sport Makes the Words Go Round

IN THE NFL," says a league veteran, "every team has a get-back coach, a guy whose job is to hold up his arms and yell, 'Get back!' when [bench players] get too close to the field."

Get-back coach is a felicitous linguistic invention, like Gretzky's office (for the area behind a goal in hockey) or exercise bulimic (for anyone trying to sweat off the calories they've just eaten). And sports are constantly minting these coinages. If language is a breathing organism, our games hyperventilate.

When the next edition of The Dickson Baseball Dictionary is published in 2008, it will contain 10,000 words and phrases, twice as many as in the first edition, published in 1989. "First you have run batted in, then RBI, then ribby, then rib eye and now steak," notes author and word nerd Paul Dickson, whose new book is Slang: The Topical Dictionary of Americanisms.

To explain why Luis Castillo didn't bunt during a crucial at bat in the Twins-A's playoff series, Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said, "They were banzaiin' all over the place." Translation: Oakland infielders were charging the plate. Baseball—like surfing—has taken the World War II cry of the kamikaze pilot and applied it to another suicidal act.

It works in reverse too. Phrases from sports are constantly crossing over to the real world. And so the current vogue for holding five-year-olds back from kindergarten an extra year is called redshirting.

Has there ever been a more apt appellation than the one given to English soccer groupies: goaldiggers? Rodeo groupies have long been called buckle bunnies, a phrase that entered—and was thus interred?—in The New Oxford American Dictionary, along with Texas Hold 'Em, the poker game that is a hothouse for slang. In Texas hold 'em, a pocket hand of ace and king is called an Anna Kournikova, and not just because of the way it appears (A, K) when fanned out in front of you. It's also a hand that looks great but often doesn't hold up against lesser opening cards.

There are more names for mullets than the Inuit have for snow, among them hockey hair and NASCAR sunscreen—incidentally, a NASCAR winner's postrace practice of putting on a dozen different baseball caps, each bearing the logo of a sponsor, is called a hat dance—but the best neologism defines something that was crying out for a name. Take those A-list stars (such as Joe Montana and Tiger Woods) who do lucrative commercials in Asia that they'd never do in the West. The website that exists to out them takes its name from a necessary new verb: Japander.

Two hundred years ago British cockfighting and boxing writer Pierce Egan invented all manner of terms still in use today, including cock of the walk and battle royale. In soccer the free kick that bends around or over a defensive wall and dips past a goalkeeper is called, in Portuguese, a folha seca, which means "dry leaf." You need only look out a window to see a swirling leaf afloat on the wind to know why. Like lullaby or Brigitte Bardot, folha seca is the rare word or phrase that is every bit as beautiful as the thing it describes.

It also happens to be a specialty of Roberto Carlos, a Real Madrid galàctico, which is European soccerese for the rank above superstar, an all-galaxy player. The word started in Spain but quickly went viral, spreading to the rest of the globe, if not yet the rest of the Milky Way.

Much great slang remains obscure occupational jargon. According to pro football writer Vic Carucci, NFL scouts say that a linebacker who uses his hands well to shed blockers while moving laterally can play the piano. Other slang is commissioned. A few years ago The Washington Post asked readers to name the act of sneaking peeks at a football game on TV during a party. The winner was ESPN-age, as in espionage.

And yet, despite our best efforts, much of the sports world remains linguistically unmapped. Let's remedy that. I'll spot you two new ones to get started. Persona non grotto: Any athlete (such as Cade McNown) banned from the Playboy Mansion. Imbecell: that fan on the phone behind home plate, waving to his buddies at home.

Some slang will live forever. Rookie was first recorded by Rudyard Kipling. (It was a 19th-century British barracks corruption of recruit.) And some new phrases grow so tiresome so quickly that we can't bear to hear them even one more time. (Let's take Throw him under the bus and throw it under the bus.)

Of course, most current coinage is rendered hopelessly passé simply by its appearance in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED or any other mass medium—a phenomenon that has a neologism of its own. "It's called the Couric Rule," says Dickson, sighing. "Once a popular talk-show host uses a word like bling-bling or def, it's gone."

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Phrases from sports are constantly crossing over. And so the current vogue for holding five-year-olds back from kindergarten an extra year is called redshirting.