While everyone may not follow the sport of boxing, there’s no denying that it has influenced both our culture and even the way we talk. Yes, the way we talk. You may not know it, but some of today’s most common phrases come from the history of boxing. Here are some of the top boxing terms that have become a regular part of our everyday language.
“You’d better toe the line.”
Telling someone to essentially, “get their act in order,” or “straighten-up,” was taken from Jack Broughton’s original Seven Rules of Boxing. In 1743, in an effort to “civilize” the sport, this former bare knuckle fighter crafted seven rules for combatants to follow. Rule #4 clearly states: “That no champion can be deemed beaten, unless he falls coming up to the line in the limited time.” Subsequently, “placing one’s toe on the line,” has become a common phrase and has since taken on its own meaning in the English language.
“Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches.”
In training, fighters learn early on to anticipate incoming punches and, instead of embracing for impact, moving with them, to lessen the force. This boxing technique is known as “rolling with punches” and has worked its way into common terminology. It has become a phrase used to encourage people to “go with the flow,” to not get caught up in the details, and to be adaptable. It’s good advice, inside the ring and out.
“He was saved by the bell.”
Before it was the title of a popular TV sitcom or meant that you “got a lucky break,” it originated from early boxing rules. It means that when one boxer is knocked down by a punch and the referee isn’t able to reach the count of 10 before the bell sounds, signifying the end of the round, the fighter can stumble, be helped, or crawl to his corner and have time to recover. The count doesn’t continue. He is, in essence, “saved by the bell.” Beyond boxing, it has come to insinuate that you were somehow “let off the hook” or that you somehow defied fate.
“Is that the Real McCoy?”
Norman Selby, or better known in the ring as Charles “Kid” McCoy, was a boxer in the 1920’s and 30’s, who had the reputation for being eccentric, outgoing, but also wildly unpredictable. This was even displayed in his outings in the boxing ring, when spectators and sportswriters would wonder which version of the fighter would enter the ring on fight night, the real fighter or the guy just making a show of it.
“Well, that was really below the belt.”
Sometime after 1810, when King George III awarded bare-knuckle fighter, Tom Cribb, the first title belt for his accomplishments in the squared-circle, the term, “hitting someone below the belt” became popular. Even though it originally meant hitting someone in or around their “private parts,” it has since become commonly used to mean “verbally taking a cheap shot at someone” or doing something underhanded. It’s actually not very positive in any case.
“You really beat them to the punch with that one.”
Although it’s obvious what this common phrase means, in terms of boxing, now it’s used to describe anytime someone “gets the upper hand” on someone else or makes the first move, rather than actually getting hit first.
“He has that killer instinct.”
This phrase was first used in the 1930’s to describe fighter, Jack Dempsey, who brought an unprecedented, unbridled rage, and an aggressive approach into the ring. In a society where boxing had previously been referred to as a Gentlemen’s Sport and Manly Art, Dempsey’s “take no prisoners approach” created a newfound excitement, captured everyone’s attention, and shed light on the real brutality of the sport. The “killer instinct” term has since become synonymous with businessmen who make decisions to win at all costs and individuals who have an unrelenting desire to succeed.
“It’s time to throw in the towel."
Although today this term is used to describe someone surrendering when facing imminent danger or admitting defeat, this practice actually first occurred around 1913. Corner men began tossing their towels into the ring to prompt the referee to stop a fight when their fighter was getting badly beaten. Soon after that, “throwing in the sponge” (also a common tool used by corner men) started taking place. Oddly enough, this practice never quite caught on and didn’t make it into the mainstream vernacular.
“He really knows the ropes.”
Almost everyone knows that boxing matches take place in a square ring, between four ropes and the fighters on that stage display a high level of skill, intelligence, and employ a high level of strategy. They know-their-way-around-the-ring, so to speak, or “know the ropes.” Today, it is said that, anyone who fully understands a situation or knows a lot about what they do, that they “know the ropes.”
“Give ‘em the ole’ One-Two.”
Although now this means to teach someone a lesson or get straight to the point, in boxing vernacular, it refers to a very specific boxing technique. As early as the 1900’s, boxing trainers used numbers to symbolize specific combinations. It was a way to identify exact punches quickly and efficiently. In essence, a ONE is a Left Jab and a TWO is a Straight Right Cross. These are two of the most basic and effective punches in boxing. Basic, effective and straight-to-the-point. Today it means being very direct or avoiding formalities.
We oftentimes adapt certain phrases or slang terms, not really even knowing what their true meaning is or where they came from. Now that you have the real story, you can turn those everyday phrases into some tough talk and put more punch in your punctuation.