'In the six' and football's other strange Americanisms

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News, Washington

Image caption,
Beckham has departed but Fox's Gus Johnson (bottom right) is a new talking point for US fans

British attempts to describe baseball provoke ridicule in the US, while American jargon in "soccer" causes amusement and bafflement among British fans. Why do people care so much?

If England and America truly are two nations divided by a common language then sporting talk is where the chasm is at its widest.

The different vocabulary used by fans in the US and UK - not just England - when discussing the same sports seems as entrenched as ever.

Prince Harry won American hearts for the way he handled a baseball bat on his recent visit - and hit a home run.

But the same could not be said for his compatriots. A clip in which the BBC described the sport as "cricket for Americans" was widely circulated in the US, prompting much mirth.

Days later, the new British recruit to American football, Lawrence Okoye, raised eyebrows when he referred to the "pitch" instead of the correct American term, "field".

Confusion also reigns in football - the one with a round ball - in the US, where British fans are flummoxed and occasionally irritated by American phrases.

Fox Sport's new football commentator, Gus Johnson, has been ridiculed for using phrases like "in the six" when describing action taking place in the six-yard box.

It's difficult for British fans in the US when they hear terms they're not familiar with but even worse if the meaning is not clear, says Florida-based Christopher Harris, who runs football blog EPL Talk.

"A popular one is 'on frame'. So they might say 'Gareth Bale hit a shot on frame', meaning on target or on goal.

"That's one that Brits think - 'what is that?' For me it sounds like hitting the post or the crossbar, I wouldn't think it was a shot on target."

Another bugbear among his website's readers is "zero-zero" instead of nil-nil. Or a clean sheet being called a "shut-out".

Then there are "cleats" instead of football boots and "field" instead of pitch, "uniform" instead of kit and "sideline" rather than touchline.

Most of these are terms common to US sports, words that many Americans grew up with. For some UK fans, they form a comical vocabulary that has been parodied on this site and on YouTube.

Members of a Celtic supporters club gathered at Flanagan's Harp and Fiddle in Bethesda, Maryland, on Sunday morning for the Scottish Cup final said the Americanisms were a source of both amusement and annoyance.

"It used to be dreadful," says Jim Meikle, Hibernian fan and author of a book about football addiction, Fitba Daft.

"I used to watch games on Spanish channels because even though I didn't speak Spanish, the American commentary would interrupt the flow of the game. The first game I listened to here 30 years ago they talked about the hotbox which I assumed was the penalty box."

We shouldn't be irritated because we live in the US and we should accept that American English is different, says Ross Gray. But we are, perhaps because the shared football-watching experience of ex-pats provides a vital "dose of home" and a commentator like Johnson intrudes on that.

There wasn't blanket disapproval, however. One fan said the Americans had every right to develop their own idiomatic expressions and they added colour to the football lexicon.

But it's more complicated than the British speaking one language and the Americans another, insists Harris, who moved to Florida from the UK in 1984 . Language divides Americans too.

"In soccer circles in the US - among fans and commentators - you have a schism between US soccer fans insisting on using American terms to describe the game compared to Americans who insist on using British language to talk about the game, so they're more accepted by hardcore soccer fans and ex-pats.

"So when Americans use terms like 'match', 'nil-nil', 'kit' and other terms, many US fans will tag those Americans with the 'Euro snob' label."

The American terms are sometimes known as MLS-isms, because they are more likely to be heard in commentary of Major League Soccer matches, although the big US networks have recruited more and more British voices in recent years, like Ian Darke and Arlo White. Some American children even imitate British accents when playing at being commentators.

Former ESPN analyst John Harkes was the first American player in the English Premier League. Having Scottish parents meant he had no problem adjusting to the UK terminology when he joined Sheffield Wednesday in 1990 - it was already ingrained in him. He now hosts a radio show.

"There are times now when I will say [on air] 'it's two-nil' and people say to me 'we don't say two-nil.' But I've been saying 'nil' since I was three or four.

"The danger is that American commentators come in and don't know the game so well and start using UK terms like 'the lads' instead of 'players' or 'guys' and it doesn't sound sincere. My advice is be yourself."

Image caption,
Harkes swapped his football boots for a microphone after he retired

This twin-track vocabulary also exists, to a lesser extent, in the UK when the British discuss American sports, says Mike Carlson, an American football commentator for Channel 4 in the UK.

"The one that is most common is when British people describe the shoes designed for basketball as 'baseball boots'.

"I've listened to Olympic baseball and Olympic ice hockey by British commentators who try hard but don't really get the point.

"Gridiron is the British default term for American football so they don't have to say 'American football'. But Americans don't call it gridiron, that's what they call the field of play.

"In baseball, there are also people who say the batsman instead of the batter or hitter. At least I've never heard them call the pitcher a bowler."

It's fine when someone is trying to find the right word, says Carlson, but it becomes irritating when you hear repeated and wilful attempts to belittle American sports - "rounders in pyjamas" or "rugby played by sissies wearing pads".

Alfred Hitchcock made a similar joke in his 1938 film, The Lady Vanishes, when two English cricket enthusiasts stranded in a fictional central European country find only baseball - "Children play it with a rubber ball and a stick" - in the New York-based Herald Tribune newspaper.

Americans do have a triumphalist approach to their own sports, says Carlson, but there is also a built-in chauvinism against American sports in the UK.

One reason why England fans particularly might be touchy about American terminology, he thinks, is because over the past 20 years the US team hasn't done significantly worse in World Cups or world ranking terms.

On the other hand, he concedes, perhaps all the British have something worth fighting for - no-one wants to see football becoming Americanised, with timeouts and tactical, coach-dominated matches.

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