As most boxing fans know, their favorite sport has coined a wide variety of colorful phrases that have found their way into everyday life throughout the English-speaking world. Some expressions obviously originated in the ring, but then there are other phrases, equally rich in description, that might seem more obscure. Here is a list of some of the more popular or interesting figures of speech that pugilism has contributed to our everyday language.
1. “Hitting below the belt”
“Hitting below the belt” is probably one of the most recognizable phrases boxing has bequeathed to us—and one of the most widely used today. Linguists date the earliest usage of the expression to about the last decade of the 19th century. It refers to the practice (made illegal in the sport under the then-new Marquess of Queensberry rules) of hitting an opponent’s body below the waist. In its metaphorical sense today, it usually means to expose or exploit another person’s vulnerabilities, often with malice intended.
2. “Beating someone to the punch”
“Beating someone to the punch” dates from about 1913 in its use in boxing, but its more general meaning came a few years later. The original, literal meaning referred simply to hitting an opponent before he could strike first. Today, we might talk about beating a competitor to the punch by being the first to bring a new product to market, or even in terms of getting out in front of a particular news cycle.
The first prize-fight radio broadcast was in 1920, when Jack Dempsey lost in a third-round knockout to Billy Miske in an event in Michigan. Minutely detailed radio reports of fights were soon riveting fans to the announcers’ descriptions of what was transpiring in the ring, and it led to the popularization of the term “blow-by-blow.”
The phrase has long since gained wide currency to mean any highly detailed account of something, from an argument to a vacation to the plotline of a television show or a novel.
4. “Toe the line”
If we tell someone they’d better “toe the line,” we’re letting them know it’s in their best interest to follow the rules and straighten up. The concept goes back to the mid-18th century when championship pugilist Jack Broughton publicized his Seven Rules of Boxing. It was an effort to bring a more “civilized” aspect to a sport that was typically a chaotic, bloody affair. One of Broughton’s rules was that a champion was not to be considered beaten until he fell “coming up to the line in the limited time.” The idea of placing a toe on the line took off in common speech, and has, of course, taken on the wider meaning we know today.
5. “Saved by the bell”
The 1990s high school sitcom Saved By the Bell owes the origin of its title to boxing. Early rules of the game stipulated that once one of the contenders received a knockout punch, he had until the referee reached the count of 10 to crawl or drag himself over to his corner—or even be assisted to walk by someone else. This stopped the count that otherwise would have resulted in a victory for his opponent, and thus he was “saved by the bell,” which designated the end of the round and the continuation of the fight.
Today, we use the term “saved by the bell” to indicate instances in which a person experiences a last-minute rescue from any type of unfortunate circumstance.
6. “A glutton for punishment”
Here’s one you might not have seen coming: “A glutton for punishment” derives not from the world of food, but boxing. The use of the word “glutton” to mean someone who is a passionate enthusiast for something is recorded as far back as the start of the 18th century. In the mid-19th century, however, boxers began to use the term “glutton for punishment” to mean a fighter who unreasonably persisted in fighting, even when it was apparent to everyone that he was in a losing battle.
Today we describe executives who work around the clock or anyone who insists on taking on more than they can handle as “gluttons for punishment.”
7. “The Real McCoy”
Let’s finish the round with an even more elusive boxing phrase. “That’s the Real McCoy,” some of our older generations might say today, meaning that whatever or whoever they’re describing is the genuine article, the real thing. This phrase’s link with boxing is a little less clear-cut than the others, but if you want to believe that boxing is its source, you’ll want to know more about Norman Selby.
Selby started boxing in the 1890s under the name of Charles “Kid” McCoy. He gained fame for his eccentricities, his boisterous nature and erratic personal life, and the sheer unpredictability of his behavior. Selby was also an actor who appeared in several Hollywood movies. Legendary sportswriter and humorist Damon Runyon called him “one of the cleverest, craftiest” boxers ever in the ring.
It happened in an 1899 rematch in San Francisco that pitted Selby against Joe Choynski, a boxer he’d previously defeated. In that earlier match, Selby landed the winning punch after the sound of the final bell, resulting in cries of “Fake!” and “Fraud!”
After Selby KO’d his opponent in the 20th round of the rematch, newspaper headlines told readers that they had now seen “the Real McCoy.” Other stories give different versions of the circumstances behind the phrase, but those that link it to boxing as the source name the larger-than-life Selby as “the Real McCoy.”