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Decoding the language of sport – Harzit, mar buggaz?

South Africa

BOOK EXTRACT

Decoding the language of sport – Harzit, mar buggaz?

In this extract from his new book, Is it Me or is it Getting Hot in Here?, Tom Eaton helps us decode the language of sport with his trademark blend of humour and sharp commentary.

Chapter 8

Love and Marriage, Politics  and Sport

Twenty years ago I spoke sport.

It hadn’t been by choice: I had got a job as a sports journalist, a post which required me to travel internationally every day, leaving my Cape Town suburb each morning to cross the Claremont border post into Newlands, a small country populated by enormous white youths called Bazza endlessly courting tiny blonde women called Tasha, ruled by a parliament of former Springboks, all of whom were called Chalky.

As is the way with the languages you learn because you have to rather than because you want to, I never achieved fluency in sport. A few seconds into any conversation with a sportsperson, I saw them retreat into that patronising wariness of the first-language speaker waiting to hear the inevitable mix-up of tenses or syntax.

To be fair, my accent was quite good. As a child I enjoyed mimicking certain accents – whether it was Har Medjestair the Queen or Shine Warne the Strine crigdah – and I found it quite easy to make the extended, nasal vowels and softened consonants required by sport.

The grammar and idiom, however, remained forever out of reach. Just as I had struggled with German’s der, die and das, I never knew whether it was ‘bru’, ‘bro’, ‘buggah’ or ‘boet’. Indeed, I usually stumbled at the very first hurdle, opening with ‘Harzit!’ when the social setting and status of the sports-speakers present clearly required me to use a more formal greeting, such as ‘Buggah, haryoo bin keepinhay?’

Likewise, only native-born sportspeople know the subtle distinctions of nomenclature. Nothing singles you out as a second-language speaker like using first names when you should use nicknames – ‘Wayne! Duane! Shane! Harzit, mar buggaz?’ rather than ‘Bazza! Chalky! Shithead! Nought, bru, watchoo fuckfaces doonear?’

Still, I muddled along, and slowly learned enough sport to realise that I often had to look beyond the literal meanings of words to understand the sense of what was being said.

As an English speaker raised in the British linguistic tradition rather than the American one, this was quite familiar to me. Speakers of American English are like golden retrievers: everything is out in the open, as complex and subtle as a chewed frisbee. When they ask you, ‘How are you today?’ – and they always do, for some reason – they are asking you how you are today. But when speakers of British English say, ‘Hello’ they are saying: “There, I have met the basic requirements of etiquette, which means we can now agree that we will not speak to each other again, unless we are trapped here by an earthquake, in which case we might feasibly share 10 or 15 more words, possibly about the lax building codes in parts foreign.”

So it is with the South African dialect of sport. Everything means something else. Let me give you an example, based on the sort of sports that might be spoken in your average post-match interview.

What they say and what they mean

“Ja, look, the guys are absolutely gutted . . .”

“We never had a hope of winning this one, and the fact that we got through it without injury to our most expensive players is a massive win for us, plus there’s the fact that this franchise competition no longer has the status  it once did, so this loss today is more  or less meaningless in the endlessly repeating soap opera of sport. All in  all, a solid day’s work.”

“. . . but they gave 110 percent.”

“The guys gave the physiologically and psychologically sensible 60 percent, then Coach took another 10 percent, mostly with some very hurtful personal remarks, and that leaves about 30 percent in the tank for a little cry in the showers followed by some brooding and drinking.”

“Ja, for sure, it’s a case of back to the drawing board . . .”

“Coach is going to make us stand with our backs to his drawing board then throw us with a brick.”

“. . . and really focusing on getting the basics right . . .”

“When he throws it he whispers, ‘Taste my pain!’ and then he does this thing where we’re not sure if he’s laughing or crying or both.”

“. . . and building ahead of next week.”

“Mostly just dodging the brick and making sure the sponsors don’t see us cry in the shower.”

“The knee? No, fully, the knee is actually feeling great.”

“I can’t feel the knee. At all. I’m not sure if it’s the meds or if Doc maybe amputated halfway down the thigh. I’m too scared to look down, because if Coach sees fear in my eyes he’s going to get the Punishment Nozzle and make me wish it was just the brick.”

It didn’t always go exactly like this. Every so often, honesty tried to crack through the euphemism and double-speak. I was at one press conference, for example, where West Indian cricketer Brian Lara was facing the media after the umpteenth embarrassing loss of an awful tour. For 20 minutes he was asked the same two questions: why did your incredibly crap team lose again, and can you see the future and tell us for how long you’re going to stay crap? Lara batted away each question with eloquent patience. The guys were disappointed. The guys had to work on their skills. The guys had given 110 percent but it wasn’t enough. The guys—

And then some hack in the back row asked the same two questions, yet again, and I saw Lara teeter on the edge. In that moment, his face wasn’t speaking sport. It was speaking English. And what it said was:

“Oh, you’re asking me about habitual losing? You, in the back row, working as a content mule at an exploitatively low wage for a noname website that’s been running at a loss for years? You, whose existence is now a series of airports and hotel bars, are asking me about what it’s like to slide into failure? You, someone who demands humility from sportspeople, are asking me what every single other person in this room has asked except you’re asking it because you think you’re so magnetic and charismatic, and your knowledge of sport so immense, that I might look up and see you and think ‘Shit, this guy really knows his stuff, maybe I should tell him what I’ve refused to tell everyone in this room for the last 20 minutes?’ You and your colleagues are starting to notice that I’m getting sullen, and you’re starting to jot down things like ‘hostile’ and ‘icy’, as if I’m the asshole here?

“Well, let me ask you something. Imagine that people cared enough about your crappy job to want to watch it broadcast live on TV. Imagine that every time you had a paper jam, or the office server crashed, or you misattributed a quote, or you split an infinitive, the whole country went, ‘Ooooh, that makes me feel terrible because it undermines the sense of self that I have built on the success or failure of this one particular sports website!’ Imagine if every time your sub-editors put the wrong picture on an article you’d written, or nobody noticed it because there aren’t subs any more because your team is crumbling just like mine, I went on TV and talked about how it might be time for you to step down and stop being a shit sportswriter. Imagine if, at the end of every week you’d scraped through with demoralised or incompetent colleagues, producing mediocre work, littering the internet with mistakes and banality, I called a press conference, televised in at least two countries, and asked you for 20 minutes, ‘Why is your work so shit?’

“So now let me ask you, Mr Back Row: how sunny and chatty do you think you’d be right now?”

But of course, Lara didn’t say any of that, because he was a professional. Instead, he said that he was disappointed, obviously, and that the guys needed to ask some tough questions and dig a bit deeper … DM

Tom Eaton is a columnist for TimesSelect and Business Day who has written five other books including the bestselling The De Villiers Code. His other titles are Texas, The Wading, Twelves Rows Back: Some Mutterings from Tom Eaton, and Touchlines and Deadlines (with Luke Alfred).

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