5 Sports Idioms: From 'Jump the Gun' to 'Slam Dunk'

Sports and leisure give us many interesting English idioms, including "in the crosshairs," "jump the gun," and "slam dunk."

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #600

english sports idioms

Are you a fan of sports and leisure activities? Some people enjoy baseball but not fishing. Others might like basketball more than track and field. But no matter what sport or leisure activity you prefer, chances are, there’s an English idiom that originates from it. This week, we’ll get you into an active frame of mind as you learn about five idioms from five different sporty activities.

1. Track and Field—'Jump the Gun'

First up is track and field. This sport encompasses a wide variety of physical activities, including high jump, shotput, and pole vault. Athletes perform these amazing feats on the field. And on the track are the ones who run, and running is the source of the first idiom in the list. Can you guess what phrase that is? Think about what might happen to runners if they begin sprinting before the signal goes off. This action is called jumping the gun and might lead to disqualification

To “jump the gun” in a figurative sense means to act hastily or prematurely, and the expression has been used in this sense since the 1940s. You might hear the phrase used in a sentence like “Allie jumped the gun and regretted investing too much money before learning the ins and outs of the stock market.” Interestingly, the phrase “jump the gun” took the place of an earlier phrase from about 1900, “beat the pistol.”

2. Baseball—'In the Ballpark'

Now, let’s play baseball. The first official baseball game was played in New Jersey in 1846. Obviously, baseball is played in a ballpark. If you are “in the ballpark” in a figurative sense, however, you are talking about an approximation or educated guess that is within reasonable limits. According to Dictionary.com, this phrase is an Americanism dating to the late 1800s or early 1900s—somewhere in that ballpark. The Online Etymology Dictionary, on the other hand, states that “in the ballpark” originated in 1954 as jargon first used by atomic weapons scientists to refer to the expected area where a missile might land. 

Regardless of exactly when the phrase came into being, it is widely used today. Let’s say that Jim is guessing Bob’s age, but Bob doesn’t want to tell Jim the exact number. Thirty-year-old Bob could say that Jim is “in the ballpark” if Jim guesses “late 20s.” You might also hear “ballpark” used as an adjective, as in “I’m not sure how much Daisy owes me, but the ballpark amount is $100.”


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.