Inside the Most Common Phrases Borrowed from American Football

Each sport develops its own unique language to describe, often in shorthand, what’s happening during the live action. Some of the most ubiquitous phrases come from popular and global events, such as boxing.

Even those who have never seen a live fight will likely know what it means to have someone in their corner, or to throw in the gloves, or to be hit below the belt. In fact, most of the world’s most popular sports have a long list of common phrases that are used in everyday life, from golf to track and field.

However, American football is one of the strangest cases. After all, there are few official leagues outside of the US’s NFL and Canada’s CFL. Additionally, the sport has a longer set of rules than most others—even a team’s playbook includes a dizzying amount of information.

As such, there’s a unique set of terms that are used to describe daily events. While Merriam-Webster lists phrases like ‘punt’ and ‘end around’ to describe scenarios, neither are used frequently, which only adds to American football’s slushy pile of language.

For those curious, a punt would be used to describe someone delaying an important issue, while an end around would describe a longer or indirect path to a goal. Neither are used with great frequency in US and Canadian vernacular. Neither is the term ‘gridiron’; in both countries ‘football’ is used to describe the sport.

Despite these misnomers, there are quite a few handy phrases from football that are used to describe everyday situations. Below are some of the most common and unique.

Moving the Goalposts

Back in the 1920s, collegiate and professional football players spent a lot of time and energy debating where, exactly, football posts should be set. The arguments were repetitive, while the debaters were stubborn. Eventually, the idea of moving the goalposts took on a highly political meaning as the breadth of the argument transcended sport.

Today, the phrase isn’t used in the NFL or CFL. Instead, it remains a political and social term.

Run Out the Clock

Though some fans hate to see it, running out the clock is a common way for any sports team to whittle down playing time in order to turn their lead into a win. Rather than run up the score, they’ll wait out the clock—though rules are much more stringent in the CFL than in the NFL.

Regardless, the phrase means the same in both countries. It refers to a deliberate strategy that emphasizes patience over hard work. As such, it’s most often used to describe menial labor, such as a nine-to-five job. Rather than work harder at the end of the day, employees might run out the clock on their workday.

Hail Mary

In a game, a Hail Mary pass describes a long-field pass that isn’t likely to be caught—but if a receiver does manage to get on the end of it, the game’s momentum will change. The phrase is pulled directly from a quarterback, Roger Staubach, who threw a winning touchdown in the NFL in the 1970s.

The phrase stuck and is commonly used today to describe any long-shot attempt at making something happen.

Running Interference

Running interference is an offensive staple that has its roots in the earliest years of football. The term originally emerged during the late 1800s to describe the basics of offensive game plans, but was then used to describe anyone providing assistance to another.

Today, it’s often used colloquially to describe friends helping each other out by either blocking or distracting someone else. 

Calling an Audible

As one of the most intense aspects of any playbook, the audible lets the quarterback flip the script and choose a different play based on how the defense acts. It’s called an ‘audible’ because the quarterback needs to deliver the update loudly.

Today, the phrase is used to describe any last-minute change in plans, especially those that empower someone to change a situation.

John McKeon is a former professional and collegiate American Football player and coach now living and working in New York. His goal is to spread news, information, and opinion on the global growth of the sport he loves.