Wayne Rooney speaks English, you understand?


The use of idiomatic language in English is one of the more complex areas for learners and one of the more intriguing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of sport – and particularly in football.

Say what you mean…

The Macmillan English Dictionary defines an idiom as ‘an expression whose meaning is different from the meaning of the individual words’. The example the dictionary gives, ‘to have your feet on the ground’, is a classic idiom meaning ‘to be sensible’. If you deconstruct the sentence and understand both what the individual words mean and what part of the sentence they form, you will be no closer to understanding the meaning of the idiom.

Idioms are used in everyday language. They offer a more expressive way to describe something and also make use of a shared knowledge between speaker and listener of the meaning that is imparted. This creates a major problem for a learner of English. If there are no rules for how an idiom is constructed, how can you learn both what it means and how to use it?

To make matters worse, we native speakers often adapt the idiom from its ‘pure’ form. Many years ago, I worked for Cobuild as a lexicographer on the first edition of their Dictionary of Idioms. To ensure we reflected as accurately as possible real usage of idioms, we undertook research with the Bank of English corpus. What we found was that the core idiom would often be changed or extended to suit the circumstance in which it was being used. In the title of this article, the first noun has been changed to use a key word from the article, ‘ARM’. In the first item of this forum entry, the author extends the idiom to emphasize its meaning.

A game of two halves

Nowhere is idiomatic language used more than in football. It is perhaps ironic that, in the sport that is branded as ‘the world’s game’, people often talk in riddles that can’t be understood even by native speakers! Why?

For the player or coach who is being interviewed just after the final whistle, idiomatic and clichéd language allows them give their ‘thoughts’ on the game without actually having to think too much. Being able to use stock phrases whilst being interviewed also minimizes the risk of saying something controversial. Try using this fun football cliché generator and see how far from the truth these are!

Commentators and expert analysts also indulge in using a range of stock idioms. Check out these vocabulary lists from the BBC and languagecaster to see a good range. For an alternative view on what some of these idioms mean, try turnerink. Given the speed at which games take place, for commentators, using these idioms is often a safety valve, buying them time to think about what they will say next. Whilst we can have fun or get exasperated at the commentator’s expense, the shared language of the football idiom or cliché can allow us to feel part of the whole experience; see what this teacher thinks – brunei-linguistics.

All over bar the shouting

There are plenty of websites and forums (beware of some of the language used!) out there looking at this subject – sometimes informative, sometimes irreverent. Just do a browser search for ‘football clichés’, ‘football idioms’ or similar to find them. There are also plenty of ideas on the web for how to teach idioms. Jim Scrivener’s article on onestopenglish is a great place to start.


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