The Proverbial Game: ‘The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs’ uncovers the origins of sporting terms

Proverbs are used everyday to convey the experiences and perplexities of modern life. As the UK is about to go sports mad, we decided to take a look through The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, in order to uncover some of the quirky sayings that originated in sport. As it turns, out there are quite a lot.

We sometimes think of proverbs as expressions of ancient wisdom, but in fact new proverbs are constantly arising. The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs is devoted exclusively to English-language proverbs that originated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The most complete and accurate such collection ever compiled, this quirky and unique book presents more than 1,400 individual proverbs gathered and researched with the help of electronic full-text databases not previously used for such a project.

Entries are organized alphabetically by key words, with information about the earliest datable appearance, origin, history, and meaning of each proverb. Mundane or sublime, serious or jocular, these memorable sayings represent virtually every aspect of the modern experience. Readers will find the book almost impossible to put down once opened, as every page offers further proof of the immense vitality of proverbs and their colorful contributions to the oral traditions of today.

Upon leafing through this fascinating book, one thing that jumps out is how many of these proverbs originated in the sports world. As the UK prepares to go sports mad with Euro 2012 and the London 2012 Olympics, we thought we’d find a selection of sports-related proverbs. Who knew that sports commentators offered such a wealth of wisdom?

No harm, no foul.

Clearly a sports metaphor, this famous phrase originated in basketball refereeing and first appeared in print in 1956 in the Hartford Courant. Simply put, it means: if an action that is against the rules has no effect on the results of the game, the referee should abstain from giving a foulThe maxim has since been applied proverbially to other matters: In 1966, the Los Angeles Times used it to describe the Christmas sales, and in 1975 it appeared in the suspense novel The Matter of Paradise (“So they quietly divorced: no harm, no foul. Mainly, no children.”).

In 1972, the expression began to be used as a sort of legal maxim: “The delay in furnishing the bank with the second year policy, in view of the fact that there was no loss on the policy, may be compared to the call in professional basketball—‘no harm, no foul’— for a rule infraction not affecting the game.” (José O. Lizama v. Bank of America).

According to The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, the phrase probably originated in the term “No blood, no foul”, a relic from rough-and tumble playgrounds of the 1950s.

You can’t score if you don’t shoot.

This proverb, and its variants, originated in football (as this is a Yale book however, we should point out that the authors call it ‘soccer’). Despite the British origins of the sport, ‘You can’t score if you don’t shoot’ has been thoroughly used in American discourse during the 20th century, particularly in politics. In 1995 former New York governor Mario Cuomo used it in his book Reason to Believe (“But we can’t score without shooting. Since the mid- 1970s, the United States has wandered away from the path to better education, higher skills, and higher wages.”) and in 1999 Claire Turenne Sjolander used it to describe international trade negotiations (“You can’t score a good deal if you don’t take your best shot at negotiating it.”).

It isn’t over till the fat lady sings.

Although its origins lie in opera, this great expression was first used publicly by Ralph Carpenter, sports information director of Texas Tech University, during a basketball game. Probably one of the only instances where basketball and opera are connected.

Pain is temporary; quitting lasts forever.

A very recent proverb, made famous by Lance Armstrong in 2003, who exceded expectations by winning a string of Tour de France medals after recovering from testicular cancer: “But the fact is I wouldn’t have won a single Tour de France without the lesson of illness. What it teaches is this: pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.”

The phrase has since become legendary (it even has its own Facebook page, with over 11,000 likes) and has been adopted by numerous other athletes. The Paralympic athlete Darren Kenny, who will be competing in this year’s London 2012 Paralympic Games, uses it as his sporting motto (“I’m stealing from Lance Armstrong, although he probably stole it from someone else, too.”).

The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs

The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs

The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs is available now from Yale in both hardback and ebook format.

“It’s a fabulous book, certainly the most enjoyable one I’ve read this year.”–Ben Yagoda, The Chronicle of Higher Education

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