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A Hundred Years of Football English: A Dictionary Study on the Relationship of a Special Language to General Language

Journal article
Authors Gunnar Bergh
Sölve Ohlander
Published in Alicante Journal of English Studies
Volume 32
Pages 15-43
ISSN 0214-4808
Publication year 2019
Published at Department of Education and Special Education
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pages 15-43
Language en
Keywords football language, diachronic perspective, general-purpose dictionaries, learners’ dictionaries, lexical change
Subject categories Specific Languages


General-purpose dictionaries may be assumed to reflect the core vocabulary of current language use. This implies that subsequent editions of a desk dictionary should mirror lexical changes in the general language. These include cases where special-language words have become so familiar to the general public that they may also be regarded as part of general language. This is the perspective of the present study on English football vocabulary, where a set of well-known football words – dribble, offside, etc. – are investigated as to their representation in five editions of the Concise Oxford Dictionary(1911–2011), and in four of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary(1948–1995). Two other dictionaries are also consulted: the Oxford Dictionary of English (2010) and – for first occurrences of the words studied – the Oxford English Dictionary. It is shown that, over the past hundred years, football vocabulary has gradually, at an accelerating pace, become more mainstream, as demonstrated by the growth of such vocabulary (e.g. striker, yellow card) in subsequent dictionary editions. Yet, some football terms make an esoteric impression, e.g. nutmeg ‘play the ball through the opponent’s legs’. Interestingly, such words also tend to be included in present-day dictionaries. Thus, football language is in a state of constant flux, responding to developments in and around the game. This is reflected in the dictionaries studied. In conclusion, due to the status and media coverage of the “people’s game” today, English general-purpose dictionaries have increasingly come to recognize much of its vocabulary as part of general language.

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