It turns out that maybe the teachers were right. The first dictionary definition of foul is "grossly offensive to the senses... loathsome; primarily with reference to the odour or appearance indicative of putridity or corruption". Which unlike our later expletives ("Coarse slang ... Copulate") sums up the dastardly deed very well.
Like many other words, "foul" seems to have entered the sporting vernacular because it is brutally straightforward; not quite swearing, but still pretty strong stuff. Used adjectivally, foul was often associated with hell. "Wykked folk shall fall doun Into hell that foule dongoun," warned a metrical homily of the 14th century. Football still recalls the association - to say a player "has the devil in him", for example, is normally a euphemistic way of putting: "He is so desperate to score he fouls all the time".
One can also measure the gentility of sports by what they take to be foul play. A foul blow in boxing means that you have punched the wrong bit of your opponent. A foul in football usually means you have deliberately come into contact with another player. The more dignified world of snooker counts a foul as hitting the wrong ball or even missing the the right one. Cricket does not use the word at all.
Thus the most traditionally sporting of sports have no specialised vocabulary to describe the physical or verbal clobbering of participants. This is a shame, for it leaves the subject of an offence deprived of both dignity and vernacular. In such a situation, one may either attempt to reclaim the dignity of the game with a discreet silence, or make a grab for the first piece of vernacular which springs to mind ("Ow! ****!").
Ben SummersReuse content