Sports lingo permeates many aspects of life, especially the business world. You’re probably heard them around the office, things like being “down for the count” or some project being a “slam dunk”. Here are the etymological origins of those popular sports phrases and, for the uninitiated, what they really mean.
Photos by Dave Lowensohn, K.M. Klemincic, Eierschneider, Generation Bass, Snow0810 and Paul Lim.
The Ball’s In Their Court
This phrase comes from tennis or basketball, depending on who you ask. According to the book Cliches: Over 1500 Phrases Explored and Explained, by Betty and Elizabeth McLaren Kirkpatrick, it originated from tennis, likely in England, and has been around since the middle of the 20th century.
It means you’ve done your part of the work or deal and “hit the ball into their court”, so you’re waiting for “the ball”, or information, paperwork, product and so on, to come back to you. Alternatively, the ball could be “in your court”, meaning people are waiting on your action.
In basketball, a full-court press is a hyper-aggressive defence strategy that involves players guarding the opposing team over the entire length of the court instead of the normal half. The phrase itself originated in 1950, when Gene Johnson, head coach at Wichita University, developed the defensive style. Merriam-Webster suggests the first known use was in 1952.
In business, the phrase means giving an all-out effort to accomplish a task or goal, but according to the The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, by Christine Ammer, it wasn’t used in conversation like that until the late 1900s (probably the late ’60s or ’70s) after basketball had become more popular due to games being televised.
Down for the Count
When a boxer falls in the ring, they’re “down for the count”, and the referee counts off the regulation 10 seconds the downed boxer has to get back up. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (AHDI) suggests the phrase was in regular use by the 1920s, especially when describing boxing matches, but one of the earliest uses of this phrase is found in a Newark Daily Advocate Newspaper from 1900.
If someone says this in the office, it means they’re having a momentary setback, but they’re not quite “down and out”, which may also originate from boxing, meaning knocked down and unconscious. The AHDI pin that idiom as an Americanism from the late 1800s (1885-1890). In that case, being “down and out” means lacking any prospects or chances of recovering from the setback. It can also mean you’re broke or destitute.
Under the Wire or Down to the Wire
In horse racing, the “wire” is what was traditionally stretched over the finish line. According to the AHDI, the phrase became a common colloquialism in the later half of the 1800s, both in America and Australia. An early example of it was used in the story “How the Derby Was Won” which appeared in an 1889 issue of Scribner’s Magazine:
As the end of the stand was reached Timarch worked up to Petrel, and the two raced down to the ‘wire,’ cheered on by the applause of the spectators. They ended the first half mile of the race head and head, passing lapped together under the wire, and beginning in earnest the mile which was yet to be traversed.
So doing something “under the wire” means you did it at the very last possible moment, or barely in the nick of time. “Down to the wire” refers to the winner being determined in the last moments of the race. If something is “down to the wire”, you’re almost out of time to complete your task.
The phrase “Hail Mary” originated with Catholic university football teams — most notably Notre Dame. According to Wikipedia, the expression goes as far back as the 1930s and it refers to a very long pass made in desperation, with only has a small chance of success. It wasn’t until a NFL playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings in 1975 that the term became widespread.
After the game-winning touchdown, Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach said, “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.” Before that game, those types of passes were called an “alley-oop”. But after, the term “Hail Mary” became a popular term for long passes and any plan or last ditch effort when prospects aren’t looking good.
On the Bench and Bench Strength
The “bench” is where players sit when they’re not participating in an ongoing game. They sit there to rest, or because they’re lacking the skills needed to help the team at that point in the competition. The phrase “on the bench” likely originated with baseball (referring to the dugout), according to AHDI, but was applied to several sports, including football and basketball, as it came into figurative usage in the early 1900s. If your boss puts you “on the bench” at work it means your skills aren’t needed at the moment, or management doesn’t think you’re capable of taking certain tasks on.
The phrase “bench strength” also comes from baseball, and refers to a pool of capable substitutes currently “on the bench” who are waiting to play. Early uses of “bench strength” and “sitting the bench” appeared in baseball articles as early as the 1940s, according to Peter Bengelsdorf, author of Idioms In the News. But it wasn’t until coverage of the 1972 Democratic National Convention that the term was popularised outside of sports when Frank Mankiewicz, the campaign director for US presidential nominee George McGovern, said, “We have good bench strength” when referring to McGovern supporters defeating support of 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 a batter’s swing where they have the best chance to make contact with the ball. The specific origin of the term as a metaphor for the “sweet spot”, Serven tells the Chicago Tribune, is a baseball article in the San Francisco Chronicle by Bill Rigney, dating back to 11 May 1959:
It just seems he’s not seeing ’em the way he used to. Take today, for instance. He had a couple that came right into his wheelhouse — the kind he used to knock out of sight — and he fouled ’em off.
The term “wheelhouse” may also refer to the central location of a ship’s wheel, where everything is within reach, but it’s popular usage is most likely attributed to baseball. You have a “wheelhouse” in business too, but it refers to your area of expertise, or the type of work you feel the most comfortable doing.
That’s Bush League
In most professional sports, a “bush league” is a minor or amateur league where low-level players hover. It refers to teams that played out “in the sticks” or “in the bush” as opposed to pro teams who play in more metropolitan areas. According to Brian Ashcraft, the author of Jargonaut Express: Essential Idioms for the Astute Business Speaker, this phrase became popular with the rise of baseball in the early 20th century.
In the business world, behaviour that is poor, unethical or unprofessional is “bush league”, and it mirrors the original meaning of the phrase. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term was already synonymous with “mean, petty, unprofessional” by 1906. The term is still used today in Major League Baseball.
Dropped the Ball
This phrase refers to a huge mistake made by players in football and rugby (a fumble), or a dropped catch in baseball. According to the AHDI, the phrase began to see regular use as a metaphor for making a mistake in the US by the 1950s, but one of the earliest known idiomatic uses comes from the 1941 book Delilah, by Marcus Goodrich:
Lieutenant Fitzpatrick and Ensign Snell were startled. Even with danger hanging overhead like a sword on unravelling thread, the Captain never interfered with his three officers, never failed to give them a chance to go through with it, unless, as Ensign Snell phrased it, they were “about to drop the ball.”
If you “drop the ball” at work, it means you’ve made a big mistake and either you or your colleagues are going to suffer for it.
It’s a Slam Dunk
The term “slam dunk”, which comes from basketball, refers to the showstopping move of jamming the ball directly into the hoop. The move may have originated as early as 1910, but the first person to perform a “slam dunk” in a regular game was Olympian Joe Fortenberry in 1936. Of course, back then they were referred to as “dunk shots” not “slam dunks”.
The term “slam dunk” itself originated in 1975 or 1976 with colourful Lakers announcer Chick Hearn, and the ADHI suggests it began to see figurative usage from 1980 onward. If someone says something is a “slam dunk”, it means it’s a sure thing. Alternatively, someone could say what you did was a “slam dunk”, meaning you did an amazing job.
Even if you already kind of knew what these athletic colloquialisms meant, now you know their backstory and can use them with confidence. That said, sports metaphors are — to switch idiomatic style — just the tip of the iceberg. There are heaps of confusing terms, metaphors and buzzwords out there, but they won’t ever throw you off if you take a few minutes to educate yourself.