By Christine Nieland
Image via the Washington Post

Image via the Washington Post

For a figure skater, “Doing a Mohawk” doesn’t involve hair gel or sex with a Native American. It’s when you’re skating forward on one foot and you rotate your body to face backwards, put down your back foot, heel first, at a right angle to your front foot, and continue in the same direction, even though you’re now going backwards. Clearly, the shorthand term helps — as demonstrated by Dmitry Olympiev, possibly my favorite person on the Internet.

When I first learned to figure skate about 15 years ago, I acquired a new technical vocabulary: “crossover,” “three-turn,” “swizzle,” “twizzle.” Over the years, I’ve also learned some fan expressions, which vary in their degree of cruelty and humor. There’s actually a term for when a skater’s performance gets cut from the TV broadcast: it’s called getting “Chacked,” in honor of Michael Chack, a competent but unexciting former competitive skater whose performances routinely hit the cutting room floor. “Chanflation” refers to the disproportionately high scores often awarded to Canadian skater Patrick Chan. A spin in which the skater holds one leg straight in the air? That would be a “Beaver Cleaver.”

Never heard of these? Skating is a niche sport, so its terms don’t generally migrate into the common language. That’s the provenance of the mainstream sports: baseball (“home run,” “touch base,” “strike out,” “getting to first base”), football (“Hail Mary,” “punt”), golf (“teed off,” “par for the course,” “Mulligan,”), basketball (“slam dunk; CIA directors are strongly discouraged from using this one.)

As a lover of language and some if not all sports, I live with the irony that my favorite slang originated in my least favorite sport: boxing. Tons of colorful terms from this brutal activity have made it into everyday American English.

If you’ve ever felt down and out because some lightweight beat you to the punch; if you’ve ever felt on the ropes, like you wanted to throw in the towel because of your inability to roll with the punches or find someone to be in your corner; if you’ve ever wanted a ringside seat as your favorite politician throws his or her hat into the ring so you can give friends a blow-by-blow account of what happened, and make them punch-drunk with happiness — you can thank the boxing glossary for all your muscular phrasing.

So what does it mean that a sport in which the participants intentionally injure each other has such a constant presence in the common language? The way I see it, these terms fit the contentious nature of daily life and elevate our mundane little tiffs into the macho world of sport. “I took it on the chin today” sounds so much more glamorous than “Mr. Edwards reprimanded me for being late with the quarterly report.” And, like “Mohawk,” they crystallize a more complicated process into one pithy term.

Now that I think about it, the scarcity of figure skating terminology in common language is probably appropriate to its relationship to life off the ice: there is nothing in everyday existence like zooming along at 20 miles per hour attached to the earth by nothing but a 1/8-inch strip of steel.

In light of research linking concussions to long-term health problems, there’s recently been talk about banning certain brain-endangering sports. Fine with me if they go — but let's keep the slang.