Whether fumbling or chomping at the bit, dealing a low blow or reaching a stalemate, idioms with origins in sports and games fill the English language. Baseball, boxing and football led to numerous phrases—touching base, letting down your guard and dropping the ball, respectively—but other, often surprising, games also maintain a steady presence in the vernacular. About fox hunting, Oscar Wilde said, “The English country gentleman galloping after the fox—the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.” And yet the controversial activity is referenced whenever red herrings arise: A 17th-century text on horse training refers to the practice of using smoked fish when training horses to follow dogs that are chasing a scent. (Its current meaning dates to 1807.) Perhaps even more surprising is the linguistic retention of another ancient sport: cockfighting. Crestfallen, cocky and well-heeled all derive from this violent competition, in addition to cockpits and the pecking order.
Sports-inflected language infuses contemporary corporate culture, imbuing it with a sense of competition and a winner-takes-all mentality. Even a heavy hitter may come across a sticky wicket (i.e. a difficult problem, derived from the challenges endured when playing on a wicket, or wet cricket pitch). Or your favorite sparring partner may throw in the towel. Or take off the gloves or get the ball rolling or hit below the belt. When bull’s-eyes, slam dunks, curveballs and strikeouts become the way of describing countless events, the workplace—and society, through a ripple effect—becomes a playing field occupied by winners
Sports permeating critical facets of life is not new: St. Paul, in his letters, frequently uses sport as a metaphor for good Christian behavior. “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training,” he writes to the Corinthians. “They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”