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

3. Basketball—'Slam Dunk'

Another ballgame that is the origin of an interesting phrase is basketball, invented in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith. Back then, the game was different than it is now. For example, at first, players used a soccer ball, and the nets were peach baskets that still had their bottoms. In addition, dribbling wasn’t part of the game, and neither were slam dunks, shots that are forcefully put into the basket. The person first credited with a slam dunk is a 7-foot-tall player from Oklahoma A&M, Bob Kurland, who accomplished this in 1944 against Temple University. Kurland later called it “an unintentional accident.” (Aren’t all accidents unintentional? But that’s a topic for another day.)

Nowadays, the phrase “slam dunk” is used to mean something certain to be accomplished. It is usually used as a noun, as in “Getting the customer to sign up for another year of service was a slam dunk.” In other words, it was very easy to do. “Slam dunk” can also be used as a compound adjective with a hyphen, as in “a slam-dunk success.”

4. Fishing—'Hook, Line, and Sinker'

Have we hooked you yet with sports-related phrases? If not, you might enjoy this fishing-related idiom. Someone who falls for something “hook, line, and sinker” believes it completely and totally. This phrase has been used to mean “to a great degree” since about 1865. Apparently, fish sometimes swallow more than just the bait. They might gobble up everything but the fishing pole: There’s the hook, which holds the bait; there’s the line, which joins the hook to the fishing pole; and there’s the sinker, a leaded weight that makes a fishing line go below the water’s surface. If you’re a fish or a gullible person, watch out for those hooks, lines, and sinkers!

5. Rifling—'In the Cross Hairs'

Last up is a phrase that comes from rifling, which involves the use of targets. People taking aim at something far away use optical devices that have cross hairs to center the target. Likewise, it can be said that people who attack and criticize others have their victims “in the cross hairs.” Believe it or not, originally cross hairs on instruments such as telescopes and micrometers were made from spiderwebs. In fact, starting in the early 1800s, before they were called cross hairs, these lines were also called “spider-lines.” 

In both the literal and figurative cases, “cross hairs” is usually two words, but it can be one word. According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of crosshairs was in 1884.


In this episode, we’ve enjoyed all kinds of fun activities, including running and fishing. It’s time to take a rest!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

That segment was written by Bonnie Mills, the author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blog at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com.


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.