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the language of football

They change the ball, they change the strips, the personnel and the tactics. There is, however, one great constant in football and that is the timeless language of the tabloid sports reporter who writes relentlessly of swoops and snubs, hoodoos and howlers, crocks, unveilings and duds.

As our vocabulary adds new words every year and slang adapts and flexes every other week, these fine men stand firm against such changes in linguistic tides and give their oath on a well-thumbed dictionary of the familiar. And I won’t blast them for that. Don’t count me among the boo boys. I hail their character. And, yes, I fear backlash.

It is an argot that endures without change and so is unlike anything else in the known universe - and clearly unlike any other slang: the slang that we hear and we use and we help evolve; the slang, for instance, that saw good became bad, bad become wicked and wicked become ill. (I don’t know what the street term for good is today - probably some demented, arcane term like jaundice or steak bake).
No. Theirs is a language in stasis, cocooned in some peculiar matrix, ignoring the regular world like one of those freaky microbes recently discovered that eats arsenic. Why should that microbe adapt? To even seek that sort of change would be a big ask.

And yet, in some long distant World Cup, I heard the venerable Hugh McIlvanney, as co-commentator, remark on yet another wasted pass and describe Scotland’s use of the ball as “criminally profligate”. My dad and I knew what he meant: he trusted us with big words. He showed in seven syllables that the simple game of football can be described in language as elegant as a young Johann Cruyff.

Hopefully, we can kick on.


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