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Football is full of idioms that have entered common usage. For example, if the first part of an activity has not been particularly successful, we can reassure ourselves that it’s ‘a game of two halves’ – in the same way that a football team losing heavily at half-time can attempt to motivate themselves to do much better in the second period, with (hopefully) better results.

In fact there are several idioms simply to feature the word ‘ball’. Another way of saying that we want to start something – ‘to kick off’ is one way of saying this, as we saw in ‘Tip of the Week’ – is to say that we will ‘get the ball rolling’, e.g. ‘let’s get the ball rolling and start the meeting now’. However we can also be ‘on the ball’, which means to be focused and able to react quickly to developments. Being ‘on the ball’ requires one to ‘keep (one’s) eye on the ball’ – i.e. to stay alert and concentrated on the matter at hand.

Let’s move on from football and enter the world of horse racing. This is also an impressively fecund realm for English idioms. Getting a ‘head start’, for example, means to gain an advantage at the beginning of a new venture, perhaps due to an acquired skill, information possessed – or plain good luck. This idiom comes from a horse race, when one horse’s head is literally ahead of its competitors as the race starts and thus closer to the finishing line! This advantage is important in case things ‘go down to the wire’ – i.e. if the outcome of an activity is not decided until the very end of its duration, e.g. ‘Getting this project finished on time will go right down to the wire.’ The ‘wire’ refers to the finishing tape used in a horse race.

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Of course we can use sporting idioms to refer to other sports. For example, this year’s English Premier League title race looks set to ‘go down to the wire’, i.e. the champion won’t be declared until after the last game of the season.

If we move now from horse racing to another game popular with gamblers – cards – we can also glean several useful phrases. Another way of expressing the idea of having an advantage is to say one ‘has the upper hand’. This refers to card games such as poker, when one player possesses a superior set of cards and is therefore more likely to win.

One way of getting ‘the upper hand’ is by keeping useful knowledge to oneself – in other words, ‘keeping one’s cards close to one’s chest’. Of course when one is engaged in a card game – especially for money – one does not wish one’s opponents to see one’s cards! If there is a lot of money involved, we say ‘the stakes are high’. This also applies to any situation where the consequences are very significant. If President Obama meets with the president of an enemy state to discuss a peace deal, we would definitely say the stakes are high. (A ‘stake’ is the amount of money a player risks losing in a card game.)

Learning idioms requires a student to ‘give it their best shot’. In other words, to try one’s best in an endeavour. This idiom comes from bunting – arguably not a sport but a controversial pastime – where a good shot would hit one’s target. It may seem as though English is constantly changing too quickly for non-natives to keep up – but no-one is ‘moving the goalposts’ – another idiom used when someone – usually a figure of authority – arbitrarily changes an objective, often without notifying those the change affects, e.g. ‘I don’t know how to please my boss. He’s always moving the goalposts of what constitutes good work.’

In closing, let us turn to matters nautical. When someone is starting a new job that requires certain skills and knowledge in order to perform effectively, they need someone to train and instruct them. We say this person is ‘learning the ropes’: an idiom that comes from a novice sailor learning the way the ropes on a ship control its movement in the water. When studying, it is better to go slowly and not ‘go overboard’, i.e. not act excessively and do too much. If you study for ten hours without a break, it is safe to say you have ‘gone overboard’ with your studying!

Why not check out our test to see how you manage using sporting idioms.

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Joe Crowley
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