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Word! The Language Column
Thinking from one column to the next

Illustration: A television camera pointed at a head with its mouth open, starting from the head a speech bubble that looks like a football field.
Media training for modern-day footballers has given rise to a whole bouquet of hackneyed phrases | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Footballese has produced an amazing array of hackneyed phrases that come in handy for football players and officials alike because they can mean everything and nothing. But what if we were to use these stock phrases in everyday life, too?

By Stephan Reich

In my line of work, I’m often interviewing football players and officials – and it’s amazing how much footballese has changed in recent years. Bear in mind that until just ten or fifteen years ago, professional footballers didn’t get any media training to help them handle press interviews – this press prep is a by-product of the professionalization of young players that set in around the turn of the millennium. And, yes, it’s also a by-product of the knack footballers have for saying dumb things all the time – proof of which can be found in a great many extant interviews with football players, managers and coaches.

Infinite loops of clichés

Regrettably, that media training for modern-day footballers has given rise to a whole bouquet of hackneyed phrases that players, coaches and managers can fall back on in any interview. And it’s a vicious circle: the more often a certain phrase gets reiterated in public (with no objections from the interviewer), the more naturally it’ll be used and reused. The upshot is an unintentionally comical perpetuum mobile of meaninglessness. How often have I heard a player say he thinks only from one match to the next? Or plays wherever the coach puts him. He wants to keep giving 110 per cent in training to give the other team a run for their money. And he aims to keep his shoulder to the wheel so as to give his team a leg-up.

Help! And it’s the same story with football officials. They use a slightly modified phrase book that is no less perfect for hiding behind. If a change of coach seems inevitable after a 5-nil rout, the situation on the ground has always got to be re-assessed. If a new player’s about to get signed up, it’s certainly an exciting draft prospect, but still a work in progress and progress reports are forthcoming. In any case, they need to play their cards close to their chest in the market because they’ve been dealt a different financial hand. They certainly won’t go out on a limb. Once the player has signed on, managers talk about how they pulled all the stops to get him and now they’re over the moon that the transfer came through at the end of day. They’d never broken off contact. The player himself didn’t have to think twice when they popped the question and always wants to go the next step. But whether that washes with the coach is another matter, because he demands the basic virtues, the results are the only thing that counts and weekends are for implementation of the tools we give the boys.  

What in the world does it mean?

All these expressions can mean everything or nothing, but never what the players, coaches and managers are actually thinking. That’s something we rarely, if ever, find out. Thanks to these ever-ready ready-made phrases, the players, coaches and managers are in the comfortable position of not having to really say a thing because they can say something about everything. As though they had a master key that fits all locks, a passe-partout for every football-related situation. The lowest common semantic denominator, into which anything meaningful can be broken. You could make a dictionary of these hackneyed verbal formulae: The German Football Phrasebook.
  • We’re taking stock of the situation means: on Monday we kick the idiot out.
  • I didn’t have to think twice when they popped the question: i.e. frankly, I had to Google the club first.
  • I think from one match to the next: stop bugging me with your questions.
  • I intend to keep my shoulder to the wheel so as to give the team a leg-up: hmm, did I turn off the stove off before I left home?

More phrases please

It’s awfully funny, by the way, to try to apply these phrases to other situations. Because some of them are so at home in football that they sound ridiculous in any other context. Which is all the more reason why I’m dying to hear them used in everyday situations, as in:
Boss: “Is the presentation ready?”
Employee: “Well, I’m thinking from one email to the next for the time being.”
Boss: “Excuse me?”
Employee: “All I can do is give 110 per cent in Excel and give the boss a run for his money.”
Boss: “But I’m the boss.”
Employee: “Yes, well, of course I’ll work at any PC you put me – to give the company a leg-up at the end of the day.”
Boss: “So is the presentation ready?”
Employee: “No.”
Boss: “Come over to my office on the double!”

Or how about some management-speak at the supermarket:
Manager: “These fish fingers are definitely an exciting draft prospect. But no progress reports are forthcoming.”
Cashier: “Uh, what was that, sir?”
Manager: “We need to be dealt the right financial hand. We have to play our cards close to the chest in the supermarket. We’re not going out on a limb.”
Cashier: “They’re on sale anyway. One seventy-nine.”
Manager: “Super. I’m over the moon that the transfer came through at the end of the day. I pulled all the stops for these fish fingers, never broke off contact.”

My impish wish is doubtless a pipedream, people don’t like making fools of themselves in public. On the other hand, I play an active part in language usage and language change myself, albeit within a limited sphere of influence, so I could get the ball rolling in a small way myself. But maybe I’d better just keep my shoulder to the wheel so as to give the editors a run for their money and just keep thinking from one column to the next.

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.