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If you aren't a sports fan, the language of sport might seem inescapable.

Either the ball’s in your court and you’ve got into the full swing, or else you’re about to throw in the towel and have to hope you’ll be saved by the bell. Sports jargon and idioms permeate the way we use English.

Professor Simon Horobin, of the Faculty of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, reveals that the language of sport comes to us from a huge variety of sources. For instance, the rugby terms “ruck”, “maul” and “scrum” come to us, respectively, from a Scandinavian word for “haystack”, a Latin word for “hammer”, and as a modified version of the military term “skirmish”.

The diverse origins of sporting terms reflect the wide range of languages which have influenced English vocabulary.  ‘Sporting lexicons are like the English language in miniature,’ said Professor Horobin.

Some sporting terms reflect their international context. Cricket is popular round the world, particularly in Commonwealth countries, and the terminology has developed accordingly. The “doosra”, for instance, is a bowling technique which takes its name from the Hindi word meaning “other (one)”.

Perhaps more unexpectedly, the word “tennis” itself is said to derive from medieval France, where the game first developed. Players shouted “tenez!” (“take that!”) as they hit the ball.

Even in English-speaking countries, the regional differences can be surprising. In Britain, the difference between “rugby” and “football” is obvious. But one was originally known as “Rugby football”, named after the public school where the sport was invented, while the other became known as “association football”, perhaps to resolve the ambiguity.

“Association football” gave rise to the term “soccer”, which is used in the USA to distinguish it from American football – which itself developed from rugby.

Confusing. But one of the things Professor Horobin is particularly interested in is how slang and language conventions in sport separate “true fans” from the uninitiated: 'In British usage, you only need to hear someone say the score in a football match is “zero-zero” to know they aren't a true fan, since it should be nil-nil, or love-all if it's tennis or squash.'

Those who don’t follow football but watch matches during a World Cup will know this only too well.

“Nil”, incidentally, derives from the Latin “nihil”, meaning “nothing”. “Love”, meanwhile, is said to derive from the French “l’oeuf”, meaning “egg” – the shape of the numeral zero.

'I'm also interested in the way sporting terms and phrases have infiltrated non-sporting contexts, said Professor Horobin. Cricket is a good example. Since it's associated with fair play, we talk about “playing with a straight bat” to mean “behaving honestly and decently”, and it's “just not cricket” to refer to any behaviour that flouts common standards of fairness.'

Professor Horobin has discussed sports etymology on the BBC World Service Sportshour programme in the last few weeks. He also blogs about word origins on Oxford University Press' Oxford Dictionaries site.


200 years ago William Smith published the first geological map of England and Wales. A new exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History tells the story of the life of Smith, the 'father of geology'.

The exhibition is called 'Handwritten in Stone: How William Smith and his maps changed geology', and runs from this Friday (9 October) to 31 January 2016.

The Museum holds the largest archive of Smith material in the world and many of its treasures will be shown in the exhibition. The map will be shown alongside Smith’s personal papers, drawings, publications and other maps, in addition to fossil material from the Museum's collections.

Visitors can also see the oldest geological map in the world – a map of Bath drawn in 1799 by Smith.

Smith was born in Oxfordshire and he conceived his geological theories and created maps single-handedly. His story was made famous with the publication of Simon Winchester's 'The Map that Changed the World' in 2001. Mr Winchester will give a talk at the Museum on Tuesday 13 October. Tickets can be booked here.

Smith's approach to mapping remains in use today. On 3 November, Oxford's Professor of Earth Sciences Mike Searle will give a lecture at the Museum on how he himself has used Smith's techniques to map the Himalaya, combining it with modern techniques.

The exhibition was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the full programme of events can be found here.

Adam and Eve

Tom Stoppard, Simon Schama, Stephen Greenblatt, the Assad Brothers and Christian Thielmann have been announced as Humanitas Visiting Professors at Oxford University over the next academic year.

This month, Professor Stephen Greenblatt will give two public lectures in Oxford as Humanitas Visiting Professor of Museums, Galleries and Libraries.

In Hilary Term next year Christian Thiemann will be Visiting Professor for Opera Studies and Tom Stoppard will be Visiting Professor for Drama Studies. In Trinity Term the Assad Brothers will share the Visiting Professorships for Classical Music and Simon Schama will lecture as Visiting Professor for Historiography.

Professor Greenblatt will speak on the theme of 'The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve' in the Weston Library's Blackwell Hall on 19 October and the South School of the Examination Schools on 20 October.

He will also lead a graduate seminar in the lecture theatre of the Weston Library on 21 October.

Stephen Greenblatt is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of twelve books, including The Swerve: How the World Became Modern and Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.

His honours include the 2012 Pulitzer Prize and the 2011 National Book Award for The Swerve, the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre, and two Guggenheim Fellowships.

Professor Greenblatt's visit has been organised by TORCH | The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, the English Faculty, and the Bodleian Library.

Humanitas is a series of Visiting Professorships at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge intended to bring leading practitioners and scholars to both universities to address major themes in the arts, social sciences and humanities.

Created by Lord Weidenfeld, the programme is managed and funded by the Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Trust with the support of a series of benefactors and administered by TORCH | The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.


Why do we still talk about the dodo?

Matt Pickles | 29 Sep 2015

Countless animals have gone extinct over the years but the dodo is one of only a few to be remembered. A special day of events at Oxford University will investigate why this bird has remained so popular.

'The Oxford Dodo: Culture at the Crossroads' will be held on 18 November 2015 to celebrate the life and legacy of the dodo.

There will be a panel discussion of the dodo’s significance at 5.30pm in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which is home to the world’s only preserved soft tissue dodo remains.

The panellists are from very different fields and will explore the dodo from a range of perspectives. They include Paul Smith (Director, Museum of Natural History), Pietro Corsi (historian of science), Jasper Fforde (children’s author), Paul Jepson (environmental researcher) & Kirsten Shepherd-Barr (literary scholar).

On the day, Oxford's Story Museum will host a children's workshop led by author Jasper Fforde, who will show how you can bring extinct animals to life through creative writing.

The University has also launched a writing competition, in collaboration with Blackwell’s, for 7 to 14 year olds, who will bring the dodo back to life through short stories and poetry. The competition is now open.

The University has been awarded funding to hold the event as part of Being Human 2015, the UK's only national festival of the humanities. The event is organised by TORCH and the Museum of Natural History in Oxford and has been made possible by a grant from the festival organisers, the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, Oxford's Humanities Knowledge Exchange Champion and an English professor, said: 'The dodo:  an icon of extinction, and a powerful symbol of humanity's impact on the environment. It crosses disciplinary lines, encompassing literature, science, the arts, geography.

'It haunts our imagination, from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland to David Quammen's The Song of the Dodo to the Natural History Museum's very own exhibit on this extraordinary and elusive creative.  What did it sound like?  How did it really look?  Why are we left to reconstruct, from a few bones, this creature that seems so real and touches us so immediately?'

Paul Smith, Director of the Museum of Natural History, said: 'Collaborating with Oxford Humanities researchers and sharing Dodo stories with the public is an excellent way to celebrate the power of museum objects and their ability to cross cultures, in this case the world’s only preserved soft tissue remains of the Dodo.'

Stephen Tuck, TORCH Director and Professor of Modern History, University of Oxford said: 'The dodo is such a symbolic character for so many fields, and this event is a great opportunity to bring those conversations together - and where better, than at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford?'

The event is free and open to the public, but booking is recommended. A ‘pop-up crèche’ for children up to 12 years old will be provided. Visit the TORCH website for more information.

Ledo Road

The story of the “unknown army” of ordinary people in South Asia working for the Allies in the Second World War has been told by an Oxford University historian.

Yasmin Khan, associate professor of history at Oxford University, who is based at the Department for Continuing Education, has written 'The Raj at War: A People's History of India's Second World War', which has been published by Penguin Random House.

'There were millions of South Asians working towards the imperial war effort and we never hear about them,’ says Professor Khan.

'What do we know about the thousands of women who mined coal for wartime in Bihar and central India, working right up until childbirth?

'Or the gangs of plantation labourers from southern India who travelled up into the mountains of the northeast to hack out roads towards Myanmar and China? Or the lascars (merchant seamen) such a Mubarak Ali, remembered simply as "a baker" who died in the Atlantic when the SS City of Benares was torpedoed?

She adds: 'It wasn't glamorous work: "coolies" loading and unloading cargo at imperial ports or clearing land for aerodromes did not share the prestige of fighter-pilots. But their work could be very dangerous.

'Thousands of Asian labourers died building treacherous roads, including the Ledo Road between China and India, working with basic pickaxes and falling prey to malaria and other tropical diseases.'

Why have their stories not been told? One reason Professor Khan identifies is that Indian workers did not write diaries or memoirs, yet there are hundreds accounts by British officers stationed in South Asia.
This is not just a matter of literacy - workers would probably have been less interested in the war and just looking to make a living.

The writing of post-independence nationalist myths after the partition of 1947 and the carving up of new countries also distracted from the role of workers in the war.

'In the rush to write new histories of nation states after 1947, much of the history of the 1940s was locked out from official memory,’ says Professor Khan.

'Tales of the freedom struggle took precedence. And in Britain and the US, the emphasis was placed on remembering military contributions to major battles, not on the everyday lives of anonymous workers.'

The book is published in the USA under the different title, India at War, and published by Oxford University Press.


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