About Sports Idioms

This site contains over 275 idioms derived from terms used in the sports and games played in the United States.

To not understand the games, their terms and idioms, hinders communication. This site is meant to remedy this situation, to teach all who want to learn how to “play the game.” If one understands the sport, the game and the way it is played, one will understand the idiomatic expressions derived from these games.

The idioms are organized by category as shown on left. Each expression has the derivation and two sentences using the idiom. Please see instructions for more explanation or go directly to the category in which you are interested. For more background, please go to the appropriate link.


Idioms are words or phrases which cannot be understood literally. Webster’s dictionary defines an idiom as, “a peculiar way of saying something which has become established after long use.” Because sports and games have been a part of the American way of life from the time the first settlers arrived on its shores, there are many American English idioms derived from these sources.

Idioms are difficult for the non-native speaker to learn in isolation from their original source.  Grouping of idioms into categories according to a particular sport or game, such as baseball, facilitates the process of learning. The student or reader uses his or her analytical ability to learn an idiom in the framework of the game from which it originated. Within each category the sport or game is described. Sports and games are further grouped into categories such as “Team Sports Idioms,” or “Hunting, Shooting and Western,” which include idioms basic to activities and sports associated with the settling and expansion of the United States, and finally, “Games Idioms,” those phrases associated with cards and gambling. Phrases and idioms including words such as “ball,” “game” and “play” general to many sports and games are found in the section “General Idioms.” These are idioms inherent to many American English sports and games.

After the introduction to each sport or game, each idiom associated with that game or sport category is presented with its original or literal meaning and at least one sentence illustrating this meaning (MEANING 1 and SENTENCE 1) and then further presented using the idiomatic meaning (MEANING 2 and SENTENCE 2). “Two strikes against him,” a statement from the sport of baseball, denotes that one strike is left before the batter is declared out; and “He hit a home run to left field with two strikes against him” is the sentence given for the student to practice using this phrase in its literal sense. The idiomatic meaning, to have only one more chance, is then given followed by a sentence, such as “He had two strikes against him when he interviewed for the job, because he had no experience.”

A DERIVATION for each idiom is given if there is interesting background information. Some phrases, such as play hardball are much more common in the derived or idiomatic sense. The sentence, “Let’s play hardball on this contract,” used in business or negotiations is more typical of this phrase than, “We play hardball when we play baseball…” If the idiom is infrequently or never used in its original sense, no first sentence is given.

Students or readers will find an alphabetized list of idioms for easy access to individual idioms. However, the learning process will be facilitated if the student tries to learn groups of idioms within the context of groups of sports and games with which they are associated.

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Sports, gambling and card games are a major part of the American way of life. People in the United States work hard and play hard. Because they love to play, because games have captured the American heart and mind, terms associated with play have become associated with work and the way Americans do business.

The “deal,” derived from card games is the business transaction, the basis of our capitialist society. “That’s the ball game; that’s the way the game is played; that’s the game” summarizes any transaction in life. To not understand “the rules of the game,” means more than the rules of a card game or a sporting event, it can mean that one doesn’t understand how life is played, how a culture works, why gift giving is less important in the United States than Japan, how business is transacted, how schools work, how boys meet girls and many other everyday events. Even the conduct of war is a “game” and a “level playing field” for U.S. and United Nations’ ground troops might necessitate mass bombing of the enemy. Advertisements in the U. S. are replete with sports terms: “Why play the game of owning trucks? If you imagine truck ownership as a pinball game in which every problem is a bumper, guess what? You’re the ball.” (from a Ryder Truck Rental advertisement).

Because of the American mania for games, because there is extensive coverage of sporting events by the mass media, many terms have been incorporated into American English as idiomatic expressions. If one understands the sport, the game and the way it is played, one will understand the idiomatic expressions derived from these games.

The most popular idioms are those derived from those games most ingrained in the American consciousness, those that have a wide audience or have been played for many years, such as cards, gambling and baseball, and those sports which are derived from a previous activity imperative to the conduct of everyday life in past years, for example sailing and horseback riding. Team sports, such as football, soccer, and baseball, have captured the corporate imagination to such a degree that people working on a project are called the “team.” A quality control team is composed of “team players” who don’t want to “drop the ball”; their goal is to produce a superior product, to “score” in the marketing world by selling these products. There are regional and, certainly, personal variations in the use of these idioms. For instance, idiomatic expressions based on sailing terms, such as “take a new tack” or “bail out” might be used more on the west and east coasts of the U. S. than in the heartland and a person whose hobby is sailing will probably use more.

If one starts to listen, one will be amazed at the number of persons and institutions, particularly businesses and businessmen, who use idiomatic terms, based on sports, to summarize a point. To Americans, “to make an end run” immediately conveys going around an immediate superior to the boss; “to pinch hit” or “carry the ball” for someone means to substitute or work on a project for someone. To not understand the games, their terms and idioms, hinders communication. This site is meant to remedy this situation and teach all who want to learn how to “play the game.”

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About the Author

Jean Henry, a teacher and administrator of American English as a Second Language literacy classes, was born in San Francisco, California. She has a B.S. from the University of California at Berkeley, and a M.Ed. from Harvard University. She is now retired and writes poetry, children’s stories, and occasional articles for magazines and local newspapers. Ms. Henry is married with grown children. She began collecting sports and games idioms for fun and for use in the classroom, culminating in this book,
“How to Play the Game, American English Sports & Games Idioms.”

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Photo Credits

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