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Fighting Words: Military Terms That Apply to Sports

By Christine Ammer 
Originally published by MHQ magazine. Published Online: November 08, 2011 
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On January 5th, 1945 a Japanese kamikaze made a suicide attack on the USS Natoma Bay (CVE-62).  (National Archives)
On January 5th, 1945 a Japanese kamikaze made a suicide attack on the USS Natoma Bay (CVE-62). (National Archives)
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Frank Gifford, a Hall of Fame halfback turned broadcaster, once said, "Pro football is like nuclear warfare. There are no winners, only survivors." That is a somewhat extreme view, but there is no doubt that a football game, like a battle, involves fierce competition. Indeed, some coaches say, "We are going to war." The analogy is borne out by the adoption of numerous military terms to football and other sports.

In football, a blitz, like the German blitzkrieg (lightning war), is a concentration of force at high speed to break the opposition's line. More specifically, it is a defensive strategy. During a play one or more linebackers or defensive backs are sent across the line of scrimmage to tackle the opposing team's quarterback or disrupt his pass. The military term dates from World War II; in football it came into use in the early 1960s.

The noun bomb in football signifies a long passing play, when the passer throws the ball to the receiver deep in the field. This usage dates from about 1939. The analogy is not clear but presumably refers to bombs dropped from aircraft, which fall a considerable distance. In contrast to the arcing bomb, a bullet is a fast, straight pass.

To blow away, meaning to shoot dead or kill by gunfire, originated in Southern dialect and became common military slang during the Vietnam War. It was soon transferred to football and other sports to signify a thorough defeat. A 1988 sports headline had it as a double entendre: Miami Hurricanes Blow Away Michigan at Finish.

The noun formation has long been used in the military for how troops are lined up to face the enemy. In football it signifies the predetermined alignment of players on the defense or offense at the beginning of each play.

The area immediately around the line of scrimmage where the offensive and defensive linemen do battle is known as the trenches. An imaginary narrow band that extends across the field parallel to the goal lines is called the neutral zone. When the ball is in position to be put in play at the beginning of a down, no player except the center may penetrate the neutral zone. Both expressions clearly allude to portions of battlefields, and the latter also appears in ice hockey. A military term used in tennis is no man's land, a midcourt area between the base line and the service line from which it is hard to make a good return. It is too far from the net for an effective volley and too far from the base line for an effective ground stroke.

During the recent Iraqi conflict, Red Zone referred to parts of Baghdad outside the perimeter of the Green Zone, the heavily guarded area in central Baghdad where U.S., coalition, and Iraqi authorities live and work. Later, Red Zone came to be used loosely for unsecured areas outside the official military posts, or indeed, any part of Iraq not in the Green Zone. In football the expression red zone is applied to the last 20 yards before the end zone, a similarly dangerous area.

In military usage the term suicide is applied to any exceptionally hazardous position or mission. During World War II the suicide squad consisted of machine gunners under heavy fire. In football the term came to be used for a group of players who run down the field during kicks and punts to break through the wedge set up by the opposing team. As in the military, they are exceptionally prone to injury. This group is also called a bomb squad or a kamikaze squad.

During World War II a submarine tactic to obtain a better attacking position was called an end around. The sub estimated the path and speed of its target and then submerged until the target was out of visual range. It would then surface and speed to a point in front of the target, submerge again, and wait till the target approached before attacking. In football an end around is a reverse in which a wide receiver or tight end turns back through the offensive backfield for a handoff from the quarterback. He then continues running around the opposite side of the line, surprising the defense, which normally expects a downfield pass.

Christine Ammer has written several dozen wordbooks. The newest is Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, 3rd ed. (October 2011).

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2 Responses to “Fighting Words: Military Terms That Apply to Sports”

  1. 1

    [...] professor even took aim at the NFL’s use of “military terms" (blitz, scrimmage, bomb, red zone, end zone, etc.) to describe plays on the [...]

  2. 2

    [...] professor even took aim at the NFL's use of "military terms" (blitz, scrimmage, bomb, red zone, end zone, etc.) to describe plays on the [...]

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