Football in the Historical Thesaurus of the OED

Football in the Historical Thesaurus of the OED

In September we published a football-themed batch of new words in preparation for the World Cup (see OED September 2022 release notes). This batch contained plenty of exotic-sounding and highly technical vocabulary, a notable amount of which is words borrowed into English from, or phrases modelled on terms originating in, other languages—Cruyff turn, Panenka, rabona, gegenpressing, trequartista, false nine, amongst others—and in doing so it highlighted the tactically unadvanced state of the football category within the Historical Thesaurus of the OED (HTOED). The words originally categorized there seem a simple and straightforward bunch in comparison; it’s unsurprising that these recent additions don’t slip seamlessly in alongside stopper, clogger, target man, header, clearance, terracing, work rate. International championships and the football played in them seemed otherworldly back in the 70s and early 80s; the words we had for describing what we ourselves did and watched on Saturdays and Sundays were, by contrast, mundane. I remember watching Cruyff’s turn and Panenka’s penalty, but I don’t remember seeing those manoeuvres replicated regularly in the real world for many years afterwards, and the words used to denote them took time to take root and spread. When awed teenagers like me watched the 1982 Brazil team, we barely had words at all to express our reactions, more gasps, sighs, and shouts of inarticulate admiration (wow int. 2 was in regular use).  

Twelve years ago I began coaching young boys to play and was thrilled to find that they both knew their Cruyff turns and their rabonas and wanted to take every opportunity to show them off. What excites me as a lexicographer is that this shows the kind of cultural change visible through lexical change that HTOED can help us investigate, but in order to permit this kind of investigation, we first needed to amend the section within the thesaurus on association football so as to take in the new football language which had been included in the recent themed batch and as part of the wider revision project.

The most immediately striking thing about the section is the sheer extent of its expansion. There were originally 92 words or phrases included within it, and now there are 163; that’s a 77% increase. In order to admit this expansion, the number of subcategories within the general category has itself grown from 41 to 53. To give one example, the subcategory player > transfer fee still includes the same two words and phrases as it always has—fee and transfer fee—but is now part of a larger little corner, where further vocabulary relating to transfers is more fully covered:

The new subcategory free contains free transfer, free, and Bosman; period of year when permitted has been created to contain a single but new concept, the transfer window. Examples of one-off categories like this will always crop up as an area of language develops, meaning that new concepts emerge which do not have alternative names or have not developed any related language at this stage. Sometimes these one-offs will cease to be one-off; for example, where there used to be just linesman, there is now also referee’s assistant. Some are perhaps destined to remain one-offs, such as maybe spectator accommodation > destination of wild or undirected shot or clearance (that’s row Z).

General categories which expand significantly often provide the richest source for looking at changes over time. The subcategory player > types of has more than tripled in size from seven to 25 words or phrases, and if these contents are ordered chronologically, a shift in their main tendency over time can be easily spotted. Earlier formations within the category are typically about scoring goals (goal-getter, marksman, goal-poacher) or stopping the other team from scoring goals (goalie, marker, stopper). Later we see types that are more tactically nuanced or which relate to particular roles within a tactical system, e.g. libero, anchor, trequartista, false nine. This story is echoed by the new subcategory parts or areas of pitch, which was created by merging a number of previously one-off categories under a more general heading that allowed further expansion with both existing and new words and phrases. The early focus for this category is the penalty area and generally areas around the goal. Later we see the development of more notional areas that exist as concepts within a tactical approach rather than as lines on the pitch, e.g. the hole and the channels. The hole is where the false nine or the trequartista will be looking to play.

By contrast to this kind of core expansion the entirely new subcategory style or system of play is a striking addition. It currently includes seven items, five from the recent themed batch and two that were drafted while we were working on the relevant sections of the alphabet in the mid 2000s.  The origins of the items within the category are like a linguistic atlas of European football powerhouses, from Italian catenaccio to German gegenpressing, from Spanish tiki-taka to Dutch total football (modelled on the Dutch word totaalvoetbal). This brings us back to where we started. The cultural change in the way we talk and think about football is reflected in our language and, now, reflected in the structure of and the lexical information contained within HTOED. If the teenage me had been transported forward in time to the present day, I would be able to use HTOED and OED to research the changes of the intervening years and, as a result, if shown footage of the 1982 Brazilians, I would be able to murmur knowingly about their ‘tiki-taka-like’ style, and extol Zico’s play ‘in the hole’. I think I’d still say wow quite a lot too, though.

HTOED links have been added to more than 1,300 senses in this update. These include entries and senses new to the OED (e.g. there are HTOED links at new additions such as barbershopping, bruz, escape room, Fluffernutter, morninger, obvs, superyacht, and many more), as well as senses already in OED.

For more information about HTOED and its uses, see

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.