SPORTING VERNACULAR No 8 Relegation

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The Independent Online
One might have thought that the opposite of promotion would be demotion, but in sporting lingo "relegation" (from relegare, to send away) is almost always the antonym of choice.

There are few football fans who haven't sung the old favourite "Going down, going down, going down" to any opposing team that looks like making a fall to the division below. A fair proportion of fans and players will also have been the unfortunate subjects of this taunt, or one of its variants ("Vauxhall Conference calling you ..."). They know better than anyone that only a momentous word will do justice to their predicament. "Demotion" isn't it.

Relegation alone has the classical roots to convey the gravity of this situation. Herod relegated his wife to a fortress; Tiberius relegated wrong-doers from Rome. If you were relegated in the classical world, you were being expelled or banished, and chances were you wouldn't be coming back.

Sometimes the word meant something less strict, coming between interdiction and full-blown deportation. As Ayliffe's Parergon juris canonici Anglicani of 1726 reminds the match-goer, "Deportation is perpetual, and relegation is only for a time." Quote that on the train back from the last match of the season and someone may buy you a tin of Stella. Equally, they might smack you in the mouth.

The imperial and judicial undertones of relegation chime in well with the militaristic language that now surrounds the use of the word in team sports. "Relegation battles" are fought. Clubs are desperate to avoid the "relegation zone". Once there, they "fight to avoid relegation". In the relegation zone more than anywhere else, sport is "war minus the shooting".

And, if worst comes to the worst, the word also has the advantage of being very much a passive verb. You can be relegated, but no one ever relegated themselves.

The implication (to be fully and gladly embraced), is that the team concerned can do nothing in the face of such capricious judgement from on high.

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