“One of the things I did that would indicate my apartness, if it even had developed at that point, was that I would announce baseball games. I remember walking along the street with my cousins, announcing the game, and one of them just slapped me in the back of the head and said ‘shut up’. That didn’t last very long, my sports announcing.”
– Don DeLillo, Interview in The Guardian
If you put your hand over your mouth and say ‘Ronaldo’, it sounds like you’re saying ‘Wijnaldum’.
How I came to discover this scintillating revelation I am unable to disclose because a magician never reveals his secrets and a thirty-one-year-old man never wonders what it would sound like to hear the announcers on an AM radio across the street, places a hand over his mouth to simulate such an imaginary noise and then pretends to join in with the commentary. I am not Don DeLillo indicating my apartness, if only because there are presently no cousins in the vicinity to do me the service of slapping me in the back of the head, about which important organ the majority of this blog concerns.
In the much-anticipated fixture between second-placed Liverpool and third-placed Manchester City at Anfield yesterday, a high-scoring result was expected due to both sides’ lethal attacks and porous defences. The immutable Law of Murphy dictated there would actually be only a solitary goal scored by Georginio, or Gini, Wijnaldum, who I now prefer to think of as the gagged Ronaldo, with what was described by more than one commentator as a ‘bullet header’.
The beautiful game is replete with militaristic terminology – aiming, attacking, armies of supporters – err, – Arsenal – and that’s just some of the As. (Ed: You can’t make both these jokes, the one suggesting you’re struggling to think of examples and the other contradicting the first by suggesting there’s a plethora.) (I can and I will. The reader will understand my inconsistency is sincere.) (Ed: Okay, but on your head be it.) (Ha! That’s good. I’m gonna include this whole conversation.) This particular example of martial lingo infiltrating the parlance of the country’s most popular sport has always struck me, like the bullet that fortunately never has, as particularly misguided.
First, let’s dive like Steven Gerrard definitely never did into a bit of what I shall call ‘footymology’, a portmanteau of ‘football’ and ‘etymology’. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘Header’ meant executioner or headsman in the mid-fifteenth century, while ‘Bullet’ with its present meaning as ammunition was first used in English in the mid-sixteenth century, meaning that if a time-traveller from these earlier ages heard the phrase ‘bullet header’, he would think it referred to a person whose occupation was shooting people’s heads off, which is a ridiculous role for a footballer. Everyone knows that’s the manager’s job.
When a footballer strikes a ball with his feet, it is called a ‘kick’. When a goalkeeper is unable to catch a ball, he will often scramble to parry it away with his hands, and that is called a ‘punch’, or if he does not have ‘command’ of his arms or the necessary foresight, he will ‘fumble’ it away, or flap at it like the man who was nicknamed ‘Flappy-Hands-Ski’.
If a goal comes off the shin, the player has shinned it, but it is not called a shinner, or if it is it is only to disparage the goal. If a player uses his chest to knock the ball down he has chested it, but it is not called a chester, partly because that sounds stupid and partly to avoid confusion with the Roman city where Hollyoaks is filmed. Shinned or chested are used as verbs but only because the action is unnatural. To the best of my knowledge, nobody goes into hand-to-hand combat with the intention of shinning or chesting someone as far as I am aware, but if there IS such an obscure martial art, I imagine practiced by Zlatan Ibrahimović in order to score dangerous and skilful goals that get disallowed, then I would very much be interested in enquiring further about it. When there is a handball, the questions usually asked are whether it was intentional or whether the hand or arm is in an unnatural position, but clearly your head is never in an unnatural position, unless you have been the victim of the aforementioned ruthless time-travelling bullet-header from the Renaissance.
Neither of the verbs ‘punch’ or ‘kick’ seems to bear any etymological relation to the extremity performing the action in question like the word header does. The hyphenated ‘head-butt’ or just the second half of that word would seem the closest without using ‘header’ but they are simply never utilised: Nobody except Zinedine Zidane in a World Cup Final head-butts in football, and using the sole word ‘butts’ sounds anachronistic and needlessly filthy. (Had I the time and inclination, of which I have far too much of the former and less than a little of the latter, I would create a highlight reel of ‘bullet headers’ to the soundtrack of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”, making sure to include an accidental ‘bullet header’ own goal under the line “And a round thing in your face”.)
Nobody hits a bullet free-kick or bullet penalty, no defender makes a bullet tackle and no goalkeeper bullet punches the ball. The action of a header is not a bullet. If anything the ball is a bullet, the header is the shooting of a shotgun, but ‘shotgun header’ is probably too on-the-nose, or whichever other part of the head from which it is controlled, usually the forehead.
What a ‘bullet header’ implies is a swift and straight trajectory. As far as I am aware, although the bullet’s design may assist with the speed and direction, the gun is very much necessary for these to have any effect. I expect nobody has ever died from having a bullet thrown at them. If anything, the speed and trajectory are related to the barrel of the firearm. ‘Barrel header’, however, sounds like it’s either been rolled in off slanting platforms like the kegs launched at Jumpman by Donkey Kong or luckily gone in like a dipsomaniac managing to get his key in the lock first time.
This leads us to the problem of how best to describe what has previously been called a ‘bullet header’ if shotgun header is too violent and barrel header sounds too clumsy. I therefore propose removing the human volition from the phrase and replacing it with something that is naturally quick and direct: the meteor header.
If you take nothing else away from this blog, let it be this: If you put your hand over your mouth and say ‘Ronaldo’, it sounds like you’re saying ‘Wijnaldum’, and yesterday he scored a meteor header.