“Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” — Heywood Broun

Sports, over the past century or so, have also revealed a lot of memorable cliches and catchphrases to all of us. For instance, just a couple weeks ago this newspaper reported on how the Boston Celtics’ Al Horford put the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo “on a poster with an impressive dunk early in the fourth quarter.”

On a poster? Since I’m (obviously) not a big basketball fan, my need to find out what that meant was great, so off I went to research, where I quickly fell down the rabbit hole of sports terminology. For example, take golf, which, according to professional golfer Gary Player, is so named “because all the other four-letter words were taken.”

While something being “subpar” is bad everywhere else, it’s good in golf. The one-under-par score of “birdie” comes from the 19th-century term “bird” meaning “excellent,” and an “eagle” is a one-stroke-better bird. The rare three-under-par score is an “albatross,” because that score is as rare as that particular bird.

On the other side of par, Scottish Major Charles Wellman once reportedly remarked that a certain duffer was “a regular bogey man.” Depending on just how bad he is, the fellow should probably have hollered “fore!” (ahead) so as to warn anyone standing there to look out for his errant ball.

Taking a swing at a different game, baseball’s use of the letter “K’ to mean a swinging strikeout came from Hall of Fame journalist Henry Chadwick, it’s said, because “S” already stood for a sacrifice fly. A backward “K” means the batter was called out after watching the third strike go by, or as play-by-play man Ernie Harwell used to say, “called out for excessive window shopping” or “He just stood there like a house on the side of the road.”


And if the guy throwing that strikeout heat was a “southpaw,” that’s because many early ballparks were oriented so the batters faced east in the afternoon to keep the sun out of their eyes. This meant that with a left-handed pitcher facing west, his throwing arm was on the south side.

When it comes to football, a lively discussion of a recent game has earned many a fan the nickname “Monday morning quarterback” – no matter what day of the week it is. Such experts have been around since at least 1931, which is when Harvard University quarterback Barry Wood reportedly coined the term.

A more recent football term is “Hail Mary,” which many younger fans of the game probably think was coined after the long desperation heave by Boston College QB Doug Flutie in the 1984 Orange Bowl. They would be wrong.

The original Hail Mary was thrown to Drew Pearson by hurried Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach against the Minnesota Vikings in 1975. “I got knocked down on the play,” said Staubach. “. . . I closed my eyes (threw the ball) and said a Hail Mary.”

But I digress, so back to the poster thing. If you’ve ever looked at a poster of an awesome slam dunk, you’ve noticed that there are often two people in the picture: the dunker and the unfortunate person who’s getting dunked on – obviously the wrong way to end up being immortalized on a poster.

While it was the late Los Angeles Lakers announcer Chick Hearn who coined the the phrases “slam dunk” and “throwing up a brick,” it was former Washington Post writer Michael Wilbon who, in the early ‘90s is believed to have come up with the saying to describe the Lakers’ Sam Perkins, who had just been “posterized” by the great Michael Jordan.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

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