NEW YORK – Football has, during the past 130 years or so, evolved from a strange combination of rugby and soccer to one of the country’s best-loved sports.
During that time, the Super Bowl, which turns 35 years old this year, has become for football fans something of an unofficial, popular holiday, and the American lexicon has absorbed a number of phrases that have their origin on the football field.
This year, after you don your favorite team jersey and stock up on snacks, kick off your Super Bowl festivities with a look at a few famous football phrases, courtesy of The Phrase Finder at Sheffield Hallam University.
* “Football.” – When paired with the active verb “to be” the term refers to any issue, problem, or even person that is shunted, or passed about from one group to another. For example, “a political football.”
* “Kickoff.” – This term describes the placekick that puts the football into play at the beginning of each game half, or after touchdowns or field goals. It has since grown to become a noun and verb describing the beginning of any campaign or drive.
* “Back to square one.” – This phrase originates from live football radio commentaries from the 1930s. Before the age of television, commentators would explain the position of play by dividing the football pitch into numbered grids.
“Square one” was just in front of the goal. Whenever the game restarted after a break or a ball went out of play and resulted in a goal kick, the play was “back at square one.”
* “Win one for the Gipper!” – During the reign of legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne in the 1920s, his star player was a young man by the name of George Gipp.
Gipp fell ill, and on his deathbed asked Rockne to promise that, when things were going badly for the team, he would inspire them by asking that they “win one for the Gipper.”
Ronald Reagan played the part of Gipp in the 1940 film Knute Rockne: All American and later used the quotation himself when seeking re-election as U.S. president in 1984.
* “The whole nine yards.” – This phrase has by far a considerably more varied and controversial history. At issue is to what, precisely, does nine yards refer, as the measure itself is insignificant.
Explanations range from clothing – it has been said that it takes about nine yards to make a fine men’s suit – to war – the machine belt gun carried by many WWII fighter planes was nine yards long.
Other explanations include: the amount of dirt in a large burial plot; the number or properties, or yards, on a standard city block in New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Levittown; the amount of cloth used in a burial shroud and the capacity of coal trucks.
However, it would appear most likely that the phrase derives from American football, but was originally intended to be ironic.
The canonical distance in the game is 10, not nine yards. Therefore, to go “the whole nine yards” you would fall just short of the goal.