The Grammarphobia Blog

Let’s get physical

Q: More and more, I hear sportscasters use the word “physicality” to describe the physical strength of a football player or other athlete. Is this even a word? And what would be a better one to refer to a physically strong person?

A: “Physicality” is a legitimate word. Whether it’s a good choice as a sports term is another matter.

The noun “physicality” entered English in 1592, when it was another word for medicine or medical practice, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 1827, it was first used to mean “the fact, state, or condition of being physical (as opposed to mental, spiritual, etc.),” the OED says.

In 1844, “physicality” began to be used in another sense: “the awareness of the body or of bodily sensation; a bodily function or experience.”

At the same time, it came to mean “the quality of being physically demanding; physical intensity; strong physical presence or appeal.” For example, a 1994 citation the OED refers to “the sheer physicality of the work.”

These days, sportscasters and sportswriters use the term in a couple of ways the OED hasn’t caught up with.

For some, as you point out, “physicality” means fitness and good physical conditioning.

But for others it means physical violence – “the collision part of collision sports,” as a Denver Post sports columnist put it.

This ambiguity alone may be reason enough to retire “physicality” from sports terminology. 

As an example of the more benign usage, Graham Watson, a blogger on ESPN, said in April that San Diego State’s football team was looking to improve its “strength and physicality.” By this he meant the team’s physical conditioning.

He quoted San Diego State’s coach, Brady Hoke, as saying, “We’re really concentrating on the strength and weight part of it and body composition part of it right now.”

But the darker side of “physicality” is apparently more common.

In an article last March on CBSSports.com, a basketball game was described as “a brutal slugfest” and the columnist, Mike Freeman, referred to the aggression as “physicality.”

An Associated Press article in April said “the trash-talking, in-your-face forward” Matt Barnes had brought “physicality” to the Orlando Magic’s lineup.

The article went on to describe Barnes’s aggressive elbowing, bumping, shoving, yelling, screaming, and generally menacing behavior.

Finally, a hockey article a month ago on the New England Sports Network was headlined “Cody McCormick Hopes to Bring Physicality to Sabres Lineup.”

The article read as though “physicality” here referred to a player’s willingness to bloody a few noses.

You ask whether there’s a better word than “physicality” to describe the physical strength of an athlete. How about simply “strength” or “fitness” or “stamina” or “power”?

And, of course, there are lots of better words than “physicality” to refer to roughness on the court or field. But it’s obvious to us why writers and coaches prefer “physical” and “physicality.”

Words that might more honestly assess this kind of behavior – “brutality,” “cruelty,”  “violence,” etc. – sound so darned unsportsmanlike! 

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