Saturday, 21 March 2009

Tackling the linguistics of rugby

In the first match of the Six Nations Rugby Championship this year Nick Mallet, Italy's coach, chose to play the talented flanker Mauro Bergamasco at scrum half. So appalling was his performance that a new phrase was immediately coined by journalists and rugby pundits: 'doing a Bergamasco'. Depending on who you listen to, the phrase refers either to one particularly shocking, ballooning pass by the hapless Mauro which gifted Italy's opponents England a try or to the poor decision by the selection committee to play a normally excellent player completely out of position with disastrous consequences.

Fortunately for Bergamasco and Italy such journalistic coinages are usually transient and tend to pass out of the language just as a badly thrown rugby ball can loop past its intended recipient (sorry, couldn't resist). However it won't be of comfort that there are cases of enduring performance-related coinages. These include the garryowen, defined by The Chambers Dictionary as 'a high kick forward together with a rush towards the landing-place of the ball'. The name comes from the Garryowen Club in County Limerick, Ireland, whose play was characterised by the frequent use of such 'up and under' kicking tactics.

As with many sports, the language of rugby is lively and rich: players forming a 'maul' could engage in some 'up the jumper' play, even a bit of 'truck and trailer' but they should be careful not to be 'pinged' by the referee or they might end up in the 'sin bin'. One of the most confusing things I found when I first started watching rugby was the multitude of names each position seemed to have. For example, the player in the number 10 position in rugby union can be referred to as a 'fly half', a 'fly', an 'outside half', an 'out half', a 'stand-off', a 'stand-off half', a 'five-eighth', a 'first five-eighth' or a 'first five', with apologies to the experts if I've missed out any. The diverse nomenclature is due to differences between rugby league and rugby union, historical rule changes and regional variation.

In addition to rugby-specific terminology, there are also more common words which have a particular rugby or sports sense such as 'mark', 'dummy', 'conversion', 'blind', 'open' and 'hooker'. Their use can lead to misunderstandings when rugby commentary is taken out of context, with often humorous or rude results. I spotted a nice example of potential ambiguity in the Observer's analysis of the Wales Italy game last weekend where Michael Aylwin writes:

'Tom Shanklin, one of a raft of replacements brought on to save a game that Wales were losing 12-7 as the final quarter approached, went over with eight minutes remaining after James Hook had gone blind from a ruck.'

For those of you with no interest in rugby, you'll be glad to know that James Hook is still fully-sighted. He just ran from the ruck on the side closer to the touch line.

Ruth O'Donovan

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