Serving Facials: 12 Unusual Sports Sayings, Explained

Laura DeptaFeatured ColumnistMay 15, 2015

Serving Facials: 12 Unusual Sports Sayings, Explained

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    Why does "love" mean "zero" in tennis? What does nutmeg have to do with soccer? There are many words and phrases in sports that aren't what they sound like, and their origins aren't necessarily intuitive.

    Some of these phrases are more common than others, so let's work our way down the list. Not all explanations and conclusions are definitive, but there is always, at minimum, a compelling theory as to how this stuff got started.


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    "Serving up a facial" in basketball means to dunk over someone decisively. Legendary basketball broadcaster Marv Albert has made this phrase famous with his emphatic and excited use of it over the years. 


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    In soccer, "nutmeg" refers to a move where one player gets past an opponent by dribbling the ball right between his legs. Check out an example courtesy of Barcelona's Lionel Messi.

    Like other dubious sports phrases, "nutmeg" has disputed origins. However, according to Sean Ingle and James Dart of The Guardian, a likely explanation has to do with shady nutmeg trading in the 19th century.


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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    Way before Lob City, the alley-oop actually started in football. 

    According to Merriam-Webster, "alley-oop" comes from the phrase "allez-oop," which is actually something a circus acrobat yells before jumping. Former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver R.C. Owens earned it as a nickname in the 1950s for his ability to leap above defenders. The term didn't find its way to basketball until later. 

Cherry Picking

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    In team sports such as basketball and hockey, cherry picking is a questionable strategy. It's not clear who first used this term in sports, but it likely comes from the idea of someone picking out the best, most desirable items for themselves. 

    According to our friends at Basketball Dictionary, instead of playing defense, the cherry picker stays nearer to the opposing goal to put himself in a good scoring position when his team regains possession. Despite its riskiness, Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive has pitched cherry picking as a legitimate strategy, according to Grantland’s Zach Lowe.

Monday Morning Quarterback

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    A "Monday Morning Quarterback" is someone who feels comfortable criticizing or providing opinions on something that has already happened. For instance, it's easier to talk about what went wrong in the Sunday game on Monday, with the benefit of hindsight.

    This phrase likely originated in the early 1920s and '30s, although that's not for certain. Two bloggers each referenced former Harvard quarterback Barry Wood, who may have used the phrase to describe college football critics in 1931. 


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    Chick Hearn was a legendary broadcaster for the Los Angeles Lakers, and according to the team and NBA, he was responsible for coining the term "throwing up a brick." To brick means to miss badly, and a bricklayer is someone who misses badly with regularity. (Looking at you, DeAndre Jordan.)

    Bonus: Hearn is reportedly also responsible for such gems as "slam dunk" and "frozen rope."

Hail Mary

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    One of the most famous Hail Mary plays in football history came in 1984, when Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie launched a successful pass to beat the University of Miami in the Orange Bowl.

    But who first used the term "Hail Mary" to describe a football play? It was reportedly former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach.

    Staubach completed a 50-yard touchdown bomb to win a playoff game in 1975, and he later described the play to reporters after the game. According to Barry Horn of The Dallas Morning News, Staubach said, "I was kidding around with the writers. Then they asked the question. I said, 'I got knocked down on the play. ... I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.'"


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    Golfers have traditionally yelled "fore" to alert bystanders of an impending swing—this much we know. However, the reasons for this specific word and its earliest uses are not completely clear. According to Scottish Golf History, it could be because caddies used to be called "forecaddies."

    Or, as golf enthusiast and writer Brent Kelley surmises, "fore" can also mean "ahead," and yelling "fore" simply means to "look out ahead."

    Both sources agree, however, that the warning cry has been used for a very long time in golf. 

Hat Trick

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    In soccer or hockey, a "hat trick" refers to a player scoring three goals in one game. In hockey, it has actually become a tradition for fans to throw hats onto the ice when a player scores a hat trick.

    The origins of the phrase are subject to some debate. According to John Beattie of NESN, it could've had something to do with hat manufacturers promising free merchandise to players in exchange for a three-goal night. Still, others think the history dates back much further, to a 19th century cricket match.


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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    "Southpaw" is just another term for a lefty, but where did it come from?

    According to word origin information from, back in the day, baseball parks were built so batters would always face east, shielding their eyes from the afternoon sun. Thus, pitchers faced west, and the dominant arms of lefties fell to the south side of their bodies.


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    The word "love" generally means adoration, affection and, you know, warm fuzzies.

    However, in tennis scoring, love means zero. The origins of this word as a part of scoring are the subject of some dispute. Ossian Shine, author of The Language of Tennis, told Stuart Miller of The New York Times, "Love being the term for zero is one of the most celebrated puzzles in tennis."

    According to Les Roopanarine of The Guardian, the Oxford Dictionary of Etymology suggests that it comes from a "love of the game" sentiment, while others think it is derived from the French word "l'oeuf," which means egg. You know, like goose eggs.


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    In baseball, the letter "K" represents a strikeout. According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a sports journalist named Henry Chadwick was the first to denote strikeouts using the letter "K" in 1859. "S" was already taken to represent a sacrifice.

    Now, sports fans know a standard "K" means "struck out swinging," while the letter placed backward means "struck out looking."