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He stole himself

Here’s Matthew Syed in today’s Times: ‘When Sir Alex Ferguson won a record ninth Premier League trophy in 2007, he allowed himself a few minutes of celebration, but then stole himself for the next challenge.’

Say what? He stole himself? How did that get in there? What does it mean? How could he have stolen himself?

It means, of course, that he steeled himself. Now, the past tense of the homonym steal is indeed stole. But the past tense of steel is not. It’s a regular past tense ending in -ed. A bizarre confusion by whoever made this mistake – and it might not have been Syed, of course, but a hyper-correcting sub.


I was reading in today’s Observer the report of Anthony Joshua’s clever points victory over Andy Ruiz. According to the headline his triumph was ‘tainted’ by his ‘crass words’ before the fight, when he said that (in response to losing the first fight against Ruiz six months ago) for the re-match he had to work out a way to ‘decapitate him’. Apparently human rights groups have condemned his words.

The words storm and teacup come irresisitbly to mind. When Joshua said he planned to decapitate his opponent it was a metaphor. He obviously wasn’t really planning to go into the ring with a chainsaw. OK, it is a violent metaphor – but boxing is a violent sport. In fact the build-up to this particular fight was relatively civilisied and free from trash-talking. Joshua and Ruiz clearly respect one another. But even if they didn’t, so what? Boxers are allowed to utter threats before fights; that’s all part of the ritual. Really, I think the Observer, and those human rights groups, ought to find something a bit more meaningful to condemn.


I might give the impression here sometimes that all I do is complain about language usage when it’s not what I’m used to; that I resist neologisms, linguistic innovation and change. Well, that’s not true. Today I want to appreciate the word worldie, used by football commentators to mean ‘world-class piece of play’. Today I heard a commentator say that Harry Kane had scored two worldies for Spurs (while Son had scored an ‘out-of-this universe’ goal). When the word was first coined it was mostly used to describe saves, but obviously it can now mean goals too, and I suppose by extension passes, tackles, interceptions and so on.

Why do I like it? I like it because it has a sort of friendly, jokey air to it. It’s funny. There’s something endearingly childlike about it. I also like it because it’s intuitive. I didn’t need to have it explained the first time I heard it, even though understanding ‘world-class save’ from the single word worldie might seem a bit of a stretch

Of course I like it even more when it’s applied to the exploits of Spurs players.

A Fairy Tale of New York

What is everyone’s favourite bit of the Pogues’ song ‘A Fairy Tale of New York’? It is of course the bit where Kirsty McColl and Shane McGowan start flinging abuse at each other – ‘You’re a bum, you’re a punk’/ ‘You’re an old slut on junk’ etc. My choir will be performing this song at our Christmas concert in the Rose and Crown and we’re all looking forward to singing that part. Except… a number of choir-members have taken exception to the use of the word ‘faggot’. And so our verison of the song has been bowdlerised to: ‘You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy braggart’.

Now, I have to admit that braggart is a clever alternative there. It is a perfect rhyme and fits the general sense, even if the register is a tiny bit off. If one has to bowdlerise, that’s good bowdlerising. But here’s the question: does one have to bowdlerise? Faggot is of course an offensive term for a gay person. But is it offensive in that context? I can’t see that it is: it occurs in a drunken row between two washed-up old wrecks and the guy addressed isn’t even gay. It’s a random, meaningless insult, wholly in tune with the spirit of that part of the song. And I don’t think the Pogues’ immortal words should be altered.

But do weigh in if you disagree.

Tongue-displays again

Take a look at this unseemly gurning by the Liverpool player Van Dijk, holding up the Champions League trophy earlier this year. Ghastly, isn’t it? I have written about the tongue-display before; although it might not seem to fall directly within my remit as I write about language, well, it is about tongues, and it is about communication. Besides, it’s a phenomenon that just won’t go away and I feel I have to keep addressing it.

The tongue-display now seems to be the celebration of choice for triumphant sportsmen. I have previously identified the footballers Gareth Bale and Wilfred Zaha as culprits, as well as the cyclist Albert Contador. Why do they do it? When I was young poking one’s tongue out was a deliberately rude gesture. Only children did it. And I think something of that meaning remains: it is supposed to look rude – not personally rude, but indicating a general disregard or defiance of polite convention; and it is supposed to look childish, too, a display of gleeful, unmoderated animal spirits. There is a definite look-at-me-ism about it. Bizarre though it seems, the tongue-exhibitionists think it looks good – free, uninhibited, proud, triumphant, victorious, in a position where one does not have to give a bugger about what the public thinks, yet paradoxically wanting to advertise that fact to the public.

Of course, in reality they simply look like buffoons – and imitative buffoons, too, since they’re all at it now. (The men, that is; I have not seen any female athletes do this.) It’s hard to believe that years ago, when whoever was the first victorious athlete to do this did it, they must have been witnessed by hundreds of younger, aspirant sportsmen who thought, ‘Hey that’s a good look, that’s exactly what I’m going to do when I score a goal or win something!’ – yet that is pretty much what must have happened.

So far it does not seem to have been remarked upon, except by me. Could we all start to draw attention to it? Maybe we could ridicule it out of existence.

find a way to win

I was watching Final Score on BBC1 yesterday and noticed that, in the report and discussion of Liverpool’s 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace, the phrase they found a way to win was used no fewer than four times; in each case, offered as if it was a most penetrating insight.

To find a way to win has in the last few years become the cliché of choice to explain a victory by a successful club when they’ve had a hard game and still, against the run of play, come away with three points. I dislike it in general and even more on this specific occasion. I dislike it in general because it is too familiar, too often-heard, and seems to me to get the causal arrow the wrong way round: it’s not that the top teams are good at finding a way to win, but that those who do find a way to win tend, for obvious reasons, to be the top teams.

The more specific reason is that in this particular case Liverpool did not ‘find a way’ to win; that is to say, they did not alter their strategy in order to get the win. They did not change their structure, throwing more players forward; or their tactics, by sending up more long balls; or their personnel, by making substitutions; or their style, by becoming more physical and committing professional fouls. No, they simply rode their luck, in particular when a Palace goal, which should have stood, was disallowed by VAR. They got away with it. They didn’t find a way to win. They just happened to win, with a slice of good fortune.

‘Find a way to win’, indeed. God. If I were a TV football pundit I’d never use such an over-employed phrase. But that, of course, is the reason (or rather one of the multiple reasons) why I am not a TV football pundit.


An ad from Just Eat has just arrived in my inbox, which uses the word cheeky three times in about 30 words of text: First, Brandon, feeling a cheeky 20% off your favourite meal? And then: You can get a cheeky Tuesday deal, this Tuesday, next Tuesday, every Tuesday: and, most annoyingly and impertinently of all, You stay cheeky Brandon.

Stay cheeky? How can I stay something I’m not in the first place? I was cheeky when I was about nine, I suppose, but I’m glad to say I’m not any more. It wouldn’t be appropriate for a 58-year-old man to be cheeky.

Where does this association with takeaways and cheekiness come from? How about a cheeky Nando’s? has become a familiar saying. What’s cheeky about eating salty greasy food? It can be pleasurable, I concede, but I don’t see why it’s cheeky. I suppose the idea is that there is something a bit naughty and irresponsible about it. Like nipping out for a crafty fag.

Hmm. Must admit I quite fancy a takeaway now…