A lament that has been heard from Democratic US presidential candidate Barack Obama time and again is, “We took our eye off the ball.” The result, he said, was that they could not stop the Taliban from crossing into Pakistan. The idiom means lose one’s concentration, get distracted from one’s main goal, or miss a chance that has come one’s way. The meaning could be easily surmised, but my question was about which game he was referring to. The two games that I could think of were football and cricket. But this was news from the US and I wondered whether the reference could be to baseball.
Later, when I read about Obama’s school days, I came to know that he was on his junior varsity basketball team in Honolulu. “I dream about playing basketball,” he said in a TV interview. His friends have vouched that he was in his element when playing basketball. It is likely that the game he had in mind was basketball.
Whatever the game you are thinking of, the advice “Keep your eyes on the ball” and “Don’t take your eye off the ball” can be valid in any important situation in life.
There is evidence that the idiom is most closely associated with golf. In 1913, a little-known 20-year-old amateur golfer, Francis Ouimet, stunned the sports world by winning the US Open, defeating his idol, the defending British champion Harry Vardon. The rest of the story is even harder to believe. Behind Ouimet’s victory was his 10-year-old caddy, Eddie Lowery. The “pint-sized” caddy kept prompting Ouimet to “be sure and keep your eye on the ball”, and gave him technical tips too. This historic event was the theme of a Disney movie, The Greatest Game Ever Played. A sculpted figure that depicted the caddy’s role in the victory was named “Keep your eye on the ball.”
Republican US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has brought in her own sports idiom into the fray. She declared that she was a “hockey mom”, thus identifying herself with the large number of mothers who will vote. This expression is an adaptation of the earlier “soccer mom”, first used in a Denver council election in 1995. A “soccer mom” is a woman who escorts her schoolgoing children to soccer practice, music lessons and other events. “Hockey mom” is a term that originated in Canada, and the game referred to is ice hockey. Hockey moms spend their time escorting their children to ice hockey rinks and bringing them back home. There is also a hint that a hockey mom is tougher and more aggressive than a soccer mom.
As the campaign in US elections enters the final weeks, tempers become hotter and tongues become sharper. The new catchphrase from both sides is “The gloves are off!” Palin has been very clear about it: “There does come a time when you have to take the gloves off and that time is right now.” The Democratic party, too, has decided to be more aggressive. This announcement by the two sides was headlined widely in the news media.
What does “the gloves are off” mean? Brewer’s Dictionary refers to the ancient custom of a challenger throwing down the glove at the opponent’s feet and the latter picking up the glove to accept the challenge. Almost synonymous with this idiom is “throw down the gauntlet”. The gauntlet is an armoured glove with metal plates. These old idioms do not carry much force now, and new idioms have taken their place. Although gloves are used in many different games, the reference in “the gloves are off” seems to be to ice hockey. Fighting is often a part of ice hockey, and, Wikipedia says, “When fighting, skaters almost always drop their gloves to the ice and fight with bare fists.” Alternatively, we could say that the reference is to boxing, where fighters normally wear gloves to avoid excessive injury to the opponent.
Both the presidential aspirants know that they are now on the home stretch. Now that the gloves are off, the tone of the campaign has changed. The candidates are going after each other’s character; digging into the past, they are revealing names of unsavoury figures with whom the opponent has been associated. Fact-checking agencies have dismissed some of these charges as untrue.
People expected that in their second public debate, there would be a knock-out punch from either Obama or his Republican rival John McCain, but the debate turned out to be rather tame, without a decisive punch. There has to be a punch, and Obama has declared, “One of the things we have done throughout this campaign: We don’t throw the first punch, but we’ll throw the last.”
That may not be the last word yet.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org