From nutmegs to bicycles: A football fan explains the lingo

An Interview with the linguist and writer Armin Burkhardt

Players launch it over the bar or thrill spectators with step-overs and nutmegs. Not many people other than football (soccer) fans would know what you were talking about here, but the “Dictionary of Football Language” by Armin Burkhardt could be of help.

What distinguishes football language?

Jubalani Enlarge image (© dpa/picture alliance) Sporting language is generally pretty descriptive. In football it just seems to be most developed in this regard because it is so often in the media. People talk about football more than other sports. What happens in each game can be very different as well, so you end up needing the language to describe the action.


There seems to be a tendency to use fighting or war terminology? Why?

Many people find it a bit vulgar, which I can easily understand. Some go too far when they talk about missiles or rockets. But on the other hand, football, like many other sports, often deals with two people facing off against each other fighting it out – a sort of “civilized violence” if you will. It lends itself to fighting metaphors, I suppose. Power is also a big part of the game.

There is other less war-like vocabulary, however, that doesn’t always make one think directly of football: diving, sombrero or nutmeg, for example. Is football lingo predestined for metaphors?

You can see that just in the sheer number of them. Reporters, especially on the radio, can be very creative. The jargon is very imaginative, taking analogies and putting them into metaphors. Football has changed over the years, too. New tricks and game situations have brought about new language and terms. If a player comes up with new techniques with the ball to get around an opposing player, for example by faking one way but going the other, you get terms like the step-over.

2,200 entries are a lot. Where did you find them, and where did you find the evidence for their origins?

Tageszeitungen Enlarge image (© iStock) I read a lot of newspaper articles and then later looked specifically for new words in other places because newspapers don’t have everything. I knew there were words that belonged more in the spoken language and less in sport reporting. One example would be ball hog, a player who holds on to the ball too long and dribbles himself into trouble. You wouldn’t find it in the newspaper but you can Google it.


Author: Ines Gollnick

Translation: Kevin White

First published on
Adapted by the Internetdivision
Reprint courtesy of the Goethe-Institute

Dictionary of Football Language