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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Saturday, 13 October 2012

Status and source in sporting terms


I'm reposting this, because I enjoy the theme so much, but mainly for the groups I've recently been working with at the British Library. For those who are tired of football - sorry it's about football.

What is the difference in status between the language the football manager uses, and that used by the footballers he manages (still ‘he’, despite everything)?  I have never heard a manager call himself anything but a ‘manager’, while I have often heard interviewed footballers call their manager ‘the gaffer’.  ‘Manager’ is a word which arrived in English in the sixteenth century from Latin, as a term to describe handling or directing a horse (it is still used, as ‘manege’, for this), while ‘gaffer’ is an abbreviation of ‘godfather’, both of the constituents of that word being derived from Old English words.

In a sense this directs some questioning towards the ‘etymological fallacy’, which states that despite the attractions of the idea, the etymological root of a word is not its ‘deep’ or ‘real’ meaning. But the difference in usage between ‘manager’ and ‘gaffer’ indicates that the etymological root of a word may give clear indicators of its sociolinguistic status, usage, and thus part of what it ‘means’. 

The status between the two words, ‘manager’ and ‘gaffer’, is directly related to their historical origins.  In this case status differentials derive from the different statuses of Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and Old English, in the post-Norman Conquest period, where Latin was the language of government and church, Anglo-Norman French was the language of the wealthy and powerful, and Old English was the language of the dispossessed.  Thus Latin- or French-based words sound to us still more formal, more serious, more authoritative than old English-based words.

To push it a little further: popular ‘football’ comes from Old English fot, and bal, almost definitely Germanic, while rather more posh ‘soccer’ comes from Association Football, ‘association’ being adopted from Latin in the fifteenth century.  The title of the ‘referee’ comes from Old French or directly from Latin, while his or her ‘linesman’, rather lower in status but still with a position of authority, developed from line, from Middle English via a mix of Old English, Old French and Latin, and from the Old English man.  The ‘players’, at the bottom of this linguistic ladder, and with the least authority, derive their name from Old English plega, meaning ‘play’, though their intermediary with authority is their ‘captain’, from Late Latin capitaneus via Old French capitain (though in conversation they might call him 'skipper', from Middle-Dutch scipper) .  Their roles are: ‘strikers’, from Old English strican; ‘forwards’, from Old English foreweard; ‘halves’, from Old English halb; and ‘backs’, from Old English bæc; with behind them a reassuring ‘goalkeeper’, from Old English gælan (probably) and cepan. 

To raise their statuses they may wish to be called ‘attack’, from French attaquer, and ‘defence’, from Old French defens.  Both of these are abstract nouns, while the corresponding term for the middle area, ‘midfield’, describing a place, is from Old English mid  and feld.  I would be wary of pushing this much further; but then it’s only a ‘game’, from Old English gamen (‘sport’, far more serious, comes from Old French desport).


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