Pigskin and gridiron: notes on the American Football lexicon

Pigskin and gridiron: notes on the American Football lexicon

As yet another January creeps to a close, American football fans across the globe are counting down the days in anticipation of the ultimate game of the season, the National Football League championship known as the Super Bowl.  As the OED indicates in its etymology, the term Super Bowl is styled after the names of marquee, end-of-season collegiate games like the historic Rose Bowl, itself so called after the bowl stadium in which it is played.  The Super Bowl represents the highest-level competition in American Football and, given the devoted following which the sport enjoys among so much of the US population, it comes as no surprise that football’s vocabulary shows up well beyond the playing field, often mixing seamlessly into social and business contexts.

Quarterbacks and their Hail Marys

In American football, the quarterback is the player who calls the signals and directs a team’s offensive play on the field.  Quarterback is now often used in civilian parlance, as a verb, to mean ‘to direct or coordinate (an operation); to lead’, as in this 1984 quotation from the Washington Post: ‘Rev. J. Bryan Hehir quarterbacked the production of the Catholic bishops’ pastoral.’  In addition to this verb, quarterback, n., has also spawned an ironic usage signifying ‘a supporter or critic of football, one who claims special knowledge of and insight into a game or team’, as found in ‘downtown quarterback’ and ‘grandstand quarterback’. Subsequently it has developed into a way to describe ‘any person who does not participate in something but analyses, advises, or criticizes from a distance or with hindsight; one who is wise after the event’.  This sense is probably most familiar to readers in the compound armchair quarterback, which the OED traces back to a quotation in a 1940 edition of the Los Angeles Times: ‘The folks back home know that pilots know more about flying than the armchair quarterbacks in Washington.’

As quarterbacks are responsible for leading their teams, in times of desperation it is not uncommon for one to resort to a play called a Hail Mary. Originally a devotional recitation, pleading for the Virgin Mary’s intercession, Hail Mary entered the gridiron vernacular in the late-twentieth century.  Harkening back to its beginnings as a plea, when encountered in American football, ‘Hail Mary’ specifically refers to ‘a long pass thrown into or near the end zone by a losing team as time is running out’.  Almost certainly as a result of its popularity in American football, this use of ‘Hail Mary’ has now also become extremely common in corporate contexts, as in this 2003 quote from the Wall Street Journal, ‘Companies were hungry for a way to be popular with investors without putting all their chips on Hail Mary strategies to boost their stock prices.’

Bombs on the gridiron

Such movements in language also occur in reverse and so, delving deeper, one also discovers gridiron terms appropriated from other contexts, such as the military. For example, ‘a charge by one or more defensive backs into the offensive backfield, esp. to prevent or disrupt a passing play’ is known as a blitz, an evocative use of the British term for the airborne attacks on London during the Second World War and itself derived from the German, blitzkrieg, or ‘lightning war’.  Conjuring some of the character of such an offensive, the OED describes a blitz in American football as ‘an attack or offensive launched suddenly with great violence with the object of reducing the defences immediately’.  The dictionary’s earliest evidence for this sense surfaces in Sam Huff’s Defensive Football from 1963. Another military appropriation is bomb, n. (see ‘additional series’, 1993-7) which, in its American football sense, the OED defines ‘a long, looping, forward pass’. Coming into use in the mid-twentieth century, bomb is a staple of newspaper sports-writing, as in this quotation from a 1974 edition of the Cleveland (Ohio) Plain Dealer: ‘Shaw High quarterback Greg Shields stung Shaker Heights twice on long bombs to pace Shaw to its first Lake Erie League victory of the season, 14–7.’

Turning from the martial to the pastoral (specifically the hog lot), one encounters pigskin, which  serves as an epithet for the football itself.  The OED entry notes that footballs are ‘now usually made from cowhide or other materials.’ Popular speculation holds that this nickname evolved because footballs were once fashioned by encasing an inflated pig bladder.  It seems more likely, however, that the leather cover sewn around the bladder could itself have been the tanned skin of a pig, thus giving the ball the characteristic name it retains whether the outer covering is now made from cowhide or synthetic material.

Finally, coming from the kitchen is another prominent peculiarity: gridiron (see 3e). In American football, gridiron refers to the field on which the game is played.  The OED’s earliest quotation for this sense is an illuminating bite from an 1896 edition of the Daily News, stating ‘the ground here is marked out by white lines thus giving it the appearance of a gigantic gridiron—which, indeed, is the technical name applied to an American football field.’  Likely owing to their popularity and longevity, both ‘pigskin’ and ‘gridiron’ have come to be used metonymically as terms for the game of football itself, a development the OED references in the entry for each item.  For ‘pigskin’, an October 1992 issue of Sports Illustrated is excerpted, ‘The man who first suggested that pigskin might bring home the bacon was the school’s vice-president for finance.’  And, in turn, for ‘gridiron’, the OED cites Charles Drummond’s Death and the Leaping Ladies, ‘You can’t just walk into a team like you can, say, in gridiron or soccer.’

Where next with the OED Online?

  1. The OED Online includes more than 1500 entries relating to sports where North America is the region of origin, from all-stars to zilch, v.
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