Blog Excerpts

Talking Football Lingo as the Super Bowl Approaches

With the Super Bowl just around the corner, our own Ben Zimmer talked to Seattle's KUOW about the origins of some football language. Some of the terms, like "the 12th man" and "the Legion of Boom," have special resonance in Seattle, home of the Super Bowl-bound Seahawks.

Here's the write-up that KUOW's "The Record" put together after the conversation:

Just like learning acronyms at a new workplace, catching on to the Seahawks’ lexicon can be daunting for the uninitiated. Ben Zimmer, linguist and self-described “word nerd,” helps us break down the terms that are flying around as often as a 12th Man flag.

Don’t feel bad if you’re a bit behind: Players have to learn these terms too since nicknames and lingos can be specific to a team or vary between teams. The term “Omaha” for the Indianapolis Colts could mean something very different than how the Denver Broncos use it.

“All of these code words and codes that hide other codes are extremely complicated. At the same time, they have to be transparent enough for players to understand and the opposing players can’t be in on it,” Zimmer said on KUOW's The Record.


Sometimes the ball, sometimes the game, the term pigskin dates back to 1894, when the football really was made out of pig skin.

“Hut, Hut Hike!”

Here, quarterbacks are borrowing from another type of team leader: military drill sergeants. “Hut” was a useful syllable for accent – short and sharp – for military marching cadences and has been used since WWII. It can also be easily overheard over a distance, which is particularly important if the opposing fans are trying to drown out your commands.

“You can hear it clearly over a distance so that’s helpful if you’re a quarterback just as it would be for a drill sergeant leading a march," Zimmer explained.

“Sam, Mike, Will”

The three men in this phrase refers to a 4-3 defensive alignment, where four linemen are on the line of scrimmage and three linebackers behind them. “Sam” is the strong side linebacker, “Mike” is the middle and “Will” is the weak side. Interesting historical fact: the names used to be women’s names in the 1950s.

12th Man

If you’re in Seattle you’ve seen this number looming everywhere recently: produce displays, on the sides of buildings or on the daily attire of your peers. However, it’s an adopted term for the city. The phrase is trademarked by Texas A&M, and the Seahawks pay an annual licensing fee to use it. The school originally came up for the term dating back to the 1920s when one of the fans actually suited up to play.

However, just because the Seahawks fans weren’t the originals, it is a long-standing tradition in Seattle. “Seahawks fans have been using that [term] back since the days in the Kingdome, back in the 1980s, when they first got this reputation for being extremely noisy and all that crowd noise helped out the team,” Zimmer said.

“Legion Of Boom”

Legion of Boom is a creation of the Seahawks. It’s a nickname for the defensive line and is a play on DC Comics’ Legion of Doom. “When Richard Sherman used it in his notorious post-game interview after the conference championship, he shortened it to just 'LOB.' But people outside of Seattle might not have been very familiar with that expression and some people even thought he was referring to [the retail brand] LL Bean,” Zimmer said.

You can listen to the radio segment here.

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