Clay's Corner: Lazy Language in Sports Jargon
Issue   |   Thu, 09/01/2011 - 22:53

As any English professor will tell you, clichés are the bane of the language. They offer little-to-no descriptive value, relying on overly familiar and uninspiring usages of diction and syntax. Like a soggy bed of iceberg lettuce, they are thoroughly disappointing and do little to satisfy a healthy appetite for excitement and energy.

Naturally, clichés thrive in the language of the sports world.

In any given situation where sports and language collide, whether it is a press conference with athlete or coach, game that commentators are calling, or a radio talk show where hosts discuss the latest sporting news, you are likely to encounter a string of tired phrases. That isn’t a bad thing though. If you are tuning to SportsCenter looking for enriching language you might as well be fly fishing in a Jacuzzi. Sports are meant to provide us with our fill of action and adrenaline. Who cares what kind of language sports people use to express themselves? Communication should be quick and easy, two things that clichés do well.

Clichés belong in the language of sports. If you need convincing, check out the baseball classic “Bull Durham” and watch Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh struggle through his first postgame interview without being armed with the comforting support of clichés. The inexperienced “Nuke” grasps for adequate language to describe the “radical in kind of a tubular sort of way” sensation he has after his first professional win, leaving it as “mostly just out there.” Clearly “Nuke” would have been better off if he had had his crash course in quick and easy cliché speak.

The problem is it seems that in recent months the simple art of the cliché is being lost in the sports world. That’s not to say that language in the sports world is leaving the familiar phrases — rather that they are being misused. The result is an indiscernible cliché malapropism that confuses fans and misrepresents those who use them.

“I have a chip on my shoulder.” This is a classic cliché as the image it produces metaphorically makes no sense and gives no indication of its meaning. Yet, it is an easy way to explain a feeling of disrespect-induced motivation, a common sentiment in sports, and therefore is perfect for the language of the sports world.

There are two parts to the phrase. It begins with the disrespect. For instance, a player may perceive that a team, front office or fan base has disrespected him. This lack of respect motivates said player, as he moves to a division rival and dedicates the rest of his season or career to playing the best ball of his life and making the ‘disrespecter’ regret ever disrespecting him. This vendetta against the one or ones who wronged them is the second key for athletes who may be tempted to use this cliché.

Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie recently claimed to have a “chip on [his] shoulder” this season after the events of the free agency frenzy. The Jets restructured contracts, went on a spending diet and nearly put up billboards down the New Jersey Turnpike in an attempt to bring in superstar cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, a move that clearly would have meant Cromartie would no longer be part of the Jets’ plans, a year after bringing in Cromartie and proclaiming him one of their “shutdown” corners of the future. Blatant disrespect. Yet, when the Jets failed to sign Asomugha and fell back on Cromartie, Cromartie quickly and happily re-signed with them despite his status as second-choice. Cromartie can’t have a “chip on his shoulder” if he’s still playing for the same team that wronged him. That’s like punishing someone who called you annoying by not talking to them. Cromartie, you’re playing right into the Jets’ hands!

The proper use of this cliché is exemplified by Tiger Wood’s ex-caddie, Steve Williams. Woods recently fired Williams, his caddie and close companion of 13 years. Williams felt wronged by the layoff, which motivated him to do some the best caddying of his career, helping Adam Scott to win the Buick Open Invitational. He claimed it was “the most satisfying win of [his] career.” Williams had a “chip on his shoulder.”

“Put your money where your mouth is.” There are also a couple components to this one. First, the owner of the money and mouth must not be performing to expectations. Secondly, he must be building up his own expectations. Underachieving and self-promotion are key for this cliché to have proper meaning.

I recently heard an ESPN radio talk show host use this cliché when referring to Denver quarterback Tim Tebow. The host said it was time for Tebow to “put his money where his mouth is.” The problem with that is that Tebow is not the self-promoting sort. He is mild-mannered and god-fearing. He’s just happy to be there. Never has he gone off at the mouth about how good he is and is going to be.

A good example of someone who needs to “put his money where his mouth is” is Jets head coach Rex Ryan (not to rag too much on the Jets, but they offer a lot of examples). For the past two years, Rex has predicted his team would win the Super Bowl. They have come close, but no rings. He’s the poster child for this cliché, as he’s been self-promoting without meeting the expectations he created.

The bottom line is if athletes, coaches and sportscasters alike don’t get their clichés sorted out, communication from the sports world may all but be lost. Imagine, all that would be left is an incomprehensible jumble of “kind of sort ofs” and “out theres” — utterly unacceptable for a world that needs quick, easy language to “get the job done right.”