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What Does It Mean to ‘Punt' Something?

A coach who chooses to punt on a fourth down is essentially saying, “The chance of us failing on this play is so big that we’re just going to give the ball to the other team.”

By
Samantha Enslen, read by Mignon Fogarty,
A man punting

The Super Bowl is right around the corner. So with that in mind, today we’re going to talk about “punting.”

‘Punt’: To Give Up

“Punting” first arose as a way to describe kicking a ball dropped from the hands before it hits the ground in rugby in the mid-1800s, and in football (and that’s American football), it means essentially the same thing: “to punt” means to kick the ball down the field.

But as an idiom, “to punt” means to give up, to defer action, or to pass responsibility off to someone else. 

Nobody is really sure where the word “punt” comes from. It might have been from a regional dialect in England that might have come from the word “bunt.” But like I said, nobody really knows.

A coach who chooses to punt on a fourth down is essentially saying, “The chance of us failing on this play is so big that we’re just going to give the ball to the other team.”

‘Punt’: The Boat

I can tell you that the other kind of punting you may be thinking about—the kind related to flat-bottom boats you still often see propelled by men and women with long poles on the river Thames in Cambridge, England—that word has a completely different origin. It comes from the Latin word for “flat-bottomed boat” that also gives us the word “pontoon.” Part of the Latin root is the word “pons,” which meant “bridge,” because these flat-bottomed boats were sometimes used to support a temporary bridge.

‘Punt’: Examples

“Punt” actually has a lot of obscure meanings as both a noun and a verb in glass-making, gambling, and beyond; but let’s get back to our modern “giving up” meaning. 

Here are a few examples from the news:

In December, "The Washington Post" described the U.S. Congress as “punting the [government] shutdown into the new year.” In other words, they gave up on fixing it in 2018 and decided to wait until 2019. 

The Post also described how the British Parliament “punted one of the most momentous decisions in British history [i.e., Brexit] to a referendum.” In other words, rather than deciding themselves whether Britain should leave the European Union, they punted responsibility for the decision to the British people.

This phrase has its origin in football, and to understand why, you need to know the role that punting plays in the game.

With that in mind, here is Grammar Girl’s first-ever lecture on football...

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