The main aim of this blog is to discuss matters of interest to Russian speakers who work with and draft legal documents in English, based on my experience of working as a legal editor, translator and English solicitor in a prominent Russian law firm.

11 February 2014

10 phrases in English with their roots in the sport of boxing

Boxing. To some, it deserves its traditional label of the ‘noble art’. To others, it’s licensed savagery out of place in the modern world. Whichever view you take, it’s hard to disagree with the noted British sports journalist James Lawton, who wrote: “Always brutal, often bloody, and occasionally lethal, boxing has inspired some of the greatest writers and film-makers in history, and produced more legends than any other sport.” It has also left its mark on the language, too, so let’s look at ten phrases that have their roots in the fight game.

A knockout blow

Meaning of this phrase: This is the decisive action in causing something to fail.

In boxing, one fighter wins when it lands a blow which knocks the other down so that he is unable to rise from the canvas. This is referred to as a ‘knockout’ and a punch that causes this to happen is a ‘knockout blow’.

A non-boxing example: Our hopes in the court case suffered a knockout blow when opposing counsel demolished our expert witness in cross-examination.

Roll with the punches

Meaning of this phrase: To absorb a blow, dealing successfully with difficulties or adversity.

Successful boxers are not only skilled in going on the attack but also need to take punishment when their opponents land a punch. ‘Rolling with the punches’ means moving back or to the side when being hit so as not to feel the full force of the impact.

A non-boxing example: You’re bound to encounter setbacks in your career, but you just have to roll with the punches, learn from what’s happened and come back wiser.

Throw in the towel

Meaning of this phrase: To give up on something, concede that a situation is hopeless or acknowledge defeat.

When a boxer’s trainer or corner man sees him taking so much punishment that it’s unsafe for a bout to continue, the fight needs to be stopped. To signify that this should happen, the trainer will throw the towel into the middle of the ring.

A non-boxing example: I’m really struggling with studying part time in addition to my full-time job, but I’m not willing to throw in the towel just yet.

To beat someone to the punch

Meaning of this phrase: To be quicker than someone else to do or say a particular thing.

In boxing, successful fighters tend to be able to hit their opponent before being hit themselves.

A non-boxing example: When I heard that the company needed a lawyer to help negotiate a contract, I was planning to offer my services but another firm beat me to the punch.

Out for the count

Meaning of this phrase: Very tired, exhausted.

A boxer is out for the count, therefore losing the fight, if he has been knocked down by a punch from his opponent and is still unable to stand after the referee has counted to ten.

A non-boxing example: The client insisted on closing the deal this week so I had to work round the clock. I’m out for the count now.

On the ropes

Meaning of this phrase: Struggling badly and likely to fail or be defeated.

The ropes signify the borders in a boxing ring. If a boxer is pinned against the ropes, this is usually because he has been knocked against them by blows from his opponent and this makes him more or less a sitting target. Often, defeat swiftly becomes an inevitability for a fighter in this position.

A non-boxing example: The government Minister is really on the ropes after his department failed to resolve the crisis facing it. I don’t see much chance that he can avoid having to resign.

Punch drunk

Meaning of this phrase: Dazed or stupefied, or by extension having absorbed too much punishment.

Boxers who have suffered repeated blows to the head can often suffer brain injury as a result of which their manner seems bewildered or confused.

A non-boxing example: After such a long and stressful meeting, I returned punch drunk to my desk.

To pull your punches

Meaning of this phrase: Not to use the full power at your disposal, or not to give someone the full, unembellished truth.

A boxer is said to pull his punches when he hits with less force than he’s capable of.

I asked him what he thought of the article I’d written and he didn’t pull his punches with his criticism.

To box clever

Meaning of this phrase: To outwit someone or pursue a calculated strategy to achieve what you want (British English).

When up against a physically strong opponent, a boxer may find himself unable to win based solely on the power of his punches. In such a case, he needs to rely on intelligent strategy by ‘boxing clever’.

A non-boxing example: You’ll need to box clever if you want to win over the other side in these negotiations.

Below the belt / a low blow

Meaning of this phrase: These phrases mean the same thing, referring to an action that is considered unfair, unethical, underhand or crossing the line in terms of what is acceptable conduct.

It is against the rules in boxing to punch someone below the line of the belt.

A non-boxing example: It was below the belt / a low blow to make such insulting remarks about him in his presence.