Quick access:

Go directly to content (Alt 1) Go directly to first-level navigation (Alt 2)

Word! The Language Column
The Freckly is Round

Illustration: A goalkeeper is diving for a ball; speech bubble with the inscription: “Playing equipment“
The goalkeeper dives for the playing equipment | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

No language is as ornate as that of sports, as you can tell from the panoply of colourful football phrases used in different countries around the world.

By Stephan Reich

I don’t know about you, but my favourite play in football is when a player gives a little cookie to a teammate, who then pulls a washer with freckly or maybe arranges the flowers before taking down the cobwebs by kicking the blessed one past the crab catcher – ideally with a ladle. Now that really warms the cockles of my heart.

Got it? No? You don’t speak fluent footballese? Well then I’ll take the liberty of translating that description, which is made up of a string of choice nuggets from the wonderful world of international football lingo: I love it when one player makes a smooth, easy-to-handle pass (“Zuckerpass”, lit. “sugar pass”, Germany) to his teammate (“gives him a little cookie”, Poland), who then sticks the ball (“freckly”, Colombia) through an opponent’s legs (a “nutmeg” in English, “tunnel” in various other languages, and “washer” – i.e. the little ring you put round a screw – in Peruvian Spanish) or maybe does a “stepover” (“arranges flowers”, China) before kicking the ball (“the blessed one”, Ecuador) past a jittery goalkeeper (“crab catcher”, India) into the corner of the goal (“takes down the cobwebs”, Croatia), ideally with a lob shot (“ladle”, Russia).

Give your opponents a chocolate

These examples are drawn from Do You Speak ­Football, a fascinating “glossary of football words and phrases from around the world”, as the subtitle reads, by Tom ­Williams, a British “football writer and broadcaster”. And I can tell you from experience that you’re liable to spend hours and hours perusing it – and to come away with the conviction that no language is more ornate than that of football and sports in general.

Some linguists might consider this claim a “stir-fried aeroplane” (i.e. a shot wide of the mark, China), but I’ll stand by it. Because there seem to be no bounds to the linguistic inventiveness of kickers around the globe. If ­you’re thrashing your opponents, you’re “giving them a chocolate” (Brazil) or a joropo (a popular Venezuelan folk dance) or you’re “beating them like a wedding drum” (Bulgaria).

In Germany it’s called an Abreibung – literally, a rubdown. So I hope somewhere in Brazil, Venezuela, Bulgaria and elsewhere, someone’s sitting there wondering why on earth the Germans equate a royal trouncing in football with a full-body massage. Because that’s the magic of so many expressions in footballese: their mysterious origins. Why does “giving a chocolate”, which seems a very nice thing to do, mean quite the contrary in Brazilian footballese? Why is an Olympico, i.e. scoring directly by corner kick, called a “dry leaf” in Russia? Why do Algerians refer to the top corner of the goal as “where Satan lives”? Why is passing with the outside of the foot called a “parrot” in Denmark and, with weird specificity, a “NASA pass” in Kenya? What about the aforementioned “stir-fried aeroplane” in China, which sounds at once poetic and woefully clunky? I sure wish the Chinese footballer who coined what has now become such a bizarrely commonplace expression there would tell me what the heck he meant by that!

Global patterns

To be sure, this apparent inexplicability doesn’t apply to all the terms: some global patterns and parallels clearly emerge. While an inept goalie is called a “Fliegenfänger“ or “flycatcher” in German, he’s said to be trying to catch all sorts of different creatures in other countries, including crabs in India, birds in Argentina and butterflies in Hungary. Only he doesn’t catch balls.

Football lingo is even more universal when it comes to outplaying a defender. There seems to be a tacit consensus among kickers of many nations that you’re sending your opponents somewhere with the aid of your football skills: either to the bazaar (Turkey), primary school (­Panama), the woods (­Holland), the chair (Kenya­), or to go get some hot dogs (Sweden), borek cheese pie (Bosnia­), beer (­Bulgaria) or coffee (Estonia).

Technocratic jargon or poetry

The playfulness of sport is directly reflected in its language, though here, too, different nations take different angles. Whereas here in Germany the ball is referred to rather drably and technically as a “Spielgerät”, literally “playing apparatus” or “gaming device”, or in antiquated workmanlike terms as the “Leder”, i.e. the “leather”, South Americans favour more poetic epithets like the aforementioned “freckly” (Colombia), “blessed one” (Ecuador) or – another nice one – “pudgy little fellow” (­Brazil). Do the Latinos employ more affectionate terms because they – at least according to the joga bonito (“beautiful game”, Brazil) cliché – handle the ball more affectionately too? Or to put it another way: If you’re capable of “putting a hat” on your opponent (Brazil), i.e. dinking the ball over his head, are you also likely to forge a more emotional rapport with the ball? Whereas Germans would say Martin Kree “beats” the “playing apparatus” into the “meshes” from the “second row”.

I don’t know about that hypothesis. Maybe I’ll email Tom Williams and ask him, he might have a theory about that one. But first I’m going to send myself out for some coffee and give myself a chocolate – and I don’t mean that metaphorically.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.