The Language of Football: A Barthesian Perspective

by Phil Dimitriadis

At this time of year conversation turns to footy in earnest and in jest. We take it for granted in Melbourne, reasoning that it has always been part of our cultural communication. It really is a language spawned by the game that intends to be a portal of inclusion and connection. Generally, it is, but what if AFL is not your code of choice?

The language of football can be defined as what French literary theorist and my favourite Rum Fart Academic, Roland Barthes refers to as a Sociolect. He argues: “So every sociolect involves ‘obligatory rubrics’, great stereotyped forms outside which the elientete of this sociolect cannot speak (cannot think)” (Barthes,  1989, p.123).

Consider the dual nature of the “handball”, a concept that separates Australian Rules football from the Soccer and Rugby codes, both as an aspect of the game itself and the language of the game. As in Plato’s “Pharmakon” handball can be an elixir and a poison if not used appropriately. A handball can be used as an offensive weapon to strengthen a team or a way to “pass off” responsibility to somebody else. In office jargon in Melbourne one can hear office workers triumphantly claim that they handballed it off to an unsuspecting colleague or that they were handballed a difficult dilemma by someone else in the office. This expression would be irrelevant if it weren’t for the connotations derived from Australian football parlance. If someone complains of being given a “hospital handpass” it means that somebody else has placed him or her in a relatively perilous situation that they have to deal with under distress. Broadly, Barthes argues, that the language creation of a sociolect helps to accord meaning communicative catharsis. He argues: “We lock ourselves into the language of our own social, professional cell, and this sequestration has a neurotic value: It permits us to adapt ourselves as best we can to the fragmentation of our society” (Barthes, 1989, p.116).

Therefore there is a therapeutic element to being “in” with the lingo even if it may result in a “problem” that needs to be solved. There is a kind of humour in being handpassed a tough task. This may result in a “chain of handpasses” that may result in the job getting done better or breaking down completely. The sociolect Barthes refers to opens a path for what Derrida calls the play of “signified”. Handball itself takes on a semiotic role as broad referent or “signifier”. The signifieds that disseminate from this referent can scatter into many fields of knowledge, but only if the first context of handball is understood. Telling an American executive to handball his problem client to a colleague would inevitably meet with a dumbfounded expression. Saying something similar to an executive in Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Darwin, Hobart or even Canberra, Australian Rules sociolectic spheres, would probably be greeted with an acknowledging nod of mutual understanding.

Former Victorian state premier Joan Kirner provides a practical example of how the language of football permeates the worlds of politics and education. She argues:

‘It was just as well I knew something about football, because the first five minutes of every Cabinet meeting was football talk. I would have been left out in the cold if I couldn’t talk football. I have found that the ability to talk footy has helped me establish career networks, political networks, social networks. When I go and talk to schools you can always get a discussion started by talking footy, the danger being that you don’t get to talk about anything else.’ (In Brown and Sheedy, 1998, p.242)

In this respect, language derived from Australian Rules Football becomes what I will refer to as “topical sociolectic discourse”. As Barthes argues: “Every strong system of discourse is a representation (in the theatrical sense: a show), a staging of arguments, aggressions, retorts, formulas, a mimodrama, in which the subject can engage his hysteric gratification” (Barthes, 1989, p.109).

This is where football can become serious and playful. There is a childlike element to football discourse that is particularly engaging for males because they can express their feelings on a subject with pronounced emotion. The emotional content of an argument or debate about football is an essential criterion because football compels the fan, player or critic to assume an identity that is not ambiguous. The subjectivity of the argument unravels the emotion like a child who is unable (or refuses) to develop a rationally objective stance on an issue. An adult is more likely to achieve a modicum of objectivity, but this strategy undermines the theatricality of the sociolect and curtails the freedom to express absurd, myopic yet intense feelings, thoughts, actions and words. Without the platform to play out mimodrama and elicit hysteric gratification, talking about football loses its verve. It becomes an important aspect of play for those who cannot play the game at the highest level because it becomes a portal of inclusion.

There is also exclusionist rhetoric to football as a sociolect that works in keeping people who don’t know or don’t want to speak the lingo out of conversations. In sporting terms, those that follow soccer, the rugby codes or any other sport first are more likely to be culturally marginalized by the tribal insularity of Australian Rules, especially in Australia’s southern states. Therefore, the establishment and maintenance of a kind of sociolectic football identity emerges from this process.

As season 2011 dawns I wonder how often we are conscious of communicating in ‘footy speak’, why we engage in it and how those who don’t like the game feel when the conversation turns against them?

About Phillip Dimitriadis

Carer/Teacher/Writer. Author of Fandemic: Travels in Footy Mythology. World view influenced by Johnny Cash, Krishnamurti, Larry David, Toni Morrison and Billy Picken.


  1. Stephanie Holt says

    Love this article!

    But striking how many sporting idioms gain widespread use that extends to those with bugger all knowledge of or interest in the sports in questions or literal meaning. It’s a slam dunk. Something comes out of left field. Horses for courses. Taking a different tack. I use those constantly while knowing next to nothing about basketball, baseball, racing, yachting …

    Though having said that, I did once have to explain to a group of students what ‘horses for courses’ meant, which kind of floored me!

  2. Beautifully written peice

  3. I wonder how much Mark Holden knows about American football? (“Touchdown!”)

  4. Phil – very interesting topic. The ability to talk footy finds people out I reckon. For those with a genuine interest the language flows. For those struggling to fit in it lands flat. Its a very similar situation when you look at politicians (around election time) standing in pubs holding a beer. For some it looked very unnatural and awkward (John Howard, Kevin (mate) Rudd), but for others it just worked (Bob Hawke springs to mind).

    P Flynn should run for Parliament.

  5. Hi Phil

    Thank you for a stimulating and engaging topic. How would you critique the following, through a Barthesian perspective: WA has carried a chip on its shoulder re the eastern states for over 100 years. It has a specific animosity towards Victoria that is projected through its idea and value of WA football. For example, one of the drivers of State of Origin football as played in the 70s came directly out of WA believing it had superior footballers to Victoria and more importantly wanted to prove its case. I would argue that WA has a different ‘language’ (or accent) than Victoria in relation to footy, borne out of a resentment and aspiration Vics wouldn’t quite understand. I imagine SA would also be different. While obviously a Vic footy supporter and a WA footy supporter can communicate, there are fault lines barely below the surface. Your thoughts?

  6. One doesn’t imagine Roland Barthes ever kicking the ball straight up the guts.

  7. Phil, so much in this article.

    Masculinity and the attraction of footyspeak as a free and open emotional release prompts much thought.

    It’s up there with the idea of footer (in all forms) as being legitimised male touching. I love this discussion, and the way it makes many squirm as they are presented with it.

    Lots of wonderful Freudian theories abound about contact sport and others and boarding schools.

    Mythologies is an engaging and provactive book. I was thinkng about it just the other day when writing an opinion piece for the Courier Mail. I should bang that piece up on the site – it’s about things appearing to be ‘the natural way’, or being constructed as ‘the natural way’ when really they are mythologies to serve particular interests. eg the discourse of inevitability about sport becoming commerce.

    Thanks for the piece.

  8. Dave Nadel says

    Interesting article, Phil. although the mention of Roland Barthes tends to make my eyes glaze. I like Stephanie’s point about sporting terminology used by people who do not understand the sport. Australian politicians are always asking the opponents to step up to the plate. I wonder if they think that they are talking about food because I am sure most of them could not find the plate in a baseball game.
    Political commentators talking about politicians handling matters “on the front foot” may have watched cricket, but their use of the term, rather suggests that they haven’t actually played much cricket.

  9. Andrew Fithall says

    My first response to your extraordinary article Phil was “well f#@k me; I am never writing anything on this website ever again. I can’t compete with that!” Then I remembered that you are a Collingwood supporter so we do have something in common, even if it might not make us intellectual equivalents – or does it?

    And if P Flynn was to run for parliament (#4), after a successful first term, his slogan for re-election could be “Just one more.”

  10. johnharms says

    Vin, I also suscribe t the truth in the drop kick understanding of the world….art v the academy: I’ll take art every time. But I do think the ordered and organised analysis where terms have agreed meaning serves a purpose.

  11. John Butler says

    Phil, that there’s some mighty fancy writin’ from a Collingwood fan. :)

    How would Barthes go at fullback for the Blues tomorrow night?

  12. Rick Kane says

    You could play Bathes, Saussere, Foucault, Eco, Lyotard and Baudrillard in the same team but without Wittgenstein and Nietzsche it would be like West Coast without Judd and Cousins.

  13. Dave Nadel says

    But according to Monty Python they would no doubt be good for a drink after the game.

  14. Rick Kane says

    Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle,
    Hobbes was fond of his dram,
    And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart: “I drink, therefore I am”

    And so say all of us!

  15. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Thanks for your responses everybody.

    #1 Stephanie, I can relate to using idioms from all sports in my daily conversations, although I refuse to ‘stick to the structures’ or ‘follow a game plan’.

    #3 Gigs, I think Mark Holden had been engaging in too many autoerotic activities when he came up with ‘Touchdown!’

    #7 Harmsy, I reckon footy speak can provide a pathway for blokes to talk about deeper stuff. Meeting many of the guys from this site is a testament to that. As for Mythologies, one cannot help but admire a literary critic who has a crack at analyzing pro wrestling.

    #9 AF, my wife would certainly take you to task over my intelligence…or lack thereof!

    #12&13 Rick and Dave, Barthes inspires me to think beyond my own prejudices, but I agree that if we take these guys too seriously we miss the point. Rick, I also think you have a point re state based lingo. Victoria’s ‘banana kick’ as opposed to SA’s ‘checkside’ is one that readily leaps to mind.

Leave a Comment