The Originators

A metaphor is when you describe something by saying it’s something else. This may sound confusing, but we use these figures of speech all the time. When you say your vacation was heaven, or you describe the cafeteria as a zoo, the meaning is probably very clear.

Metaphors from sports – e.g. hit a home run, fumble the ball, throw in the towel – are part of everyday English. Below are obituaries of three sportsmen who changed not only their games, but our language.



“We don’t need to spike the football, and I think that, given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create some national security risk,” Obama said.

After US commandos killed Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama declined to release photographs of the terrorist’s corpse. He did so using a football metaphor that expresses victorious celebration.

Professional football’s first spike was performed in 1965 by Homer Jones, on the occasion of catching his first touchdown pass. His joy did not last. According to his New York Times obituary:

…he said that he had watched the end-zone demonstrations over the years with disapproval, and that if he had known what would result from his act, he would have thought twice. “It caused so many things — obscene things and confusing things,” he said. “I wish I hadn’t started it.”


Tenet, a basketball fan… leaned forward and threw his arms up again. “Don’t worry, it’s a slam dunk!”

George Tenet, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, convinced President George Bush to go to war in Iraq by using a basketball metaphor. He sought to convey the certainty that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction by using a term that means, colloquially, a sure thing. No such weapons were ever found.

It’s not certain who performed the first slam dunk, but it’s often attributed to Joe Fortenberry, who did so in Berlin in 1936 while leading the US Olympic team to a gold medal. His New York Times obituary notes the game, but not his innovation.


The Los Angeles Times obituary of Glenn Burke, who died at 42, is four paragraphs long. It recounts the prejudice he faced as one of the first openly gay players in a major league sport, as well as his troubled life following professional baseball.

The obituary neglects to mention that he brought us the high five.