To the unlearned ear, the linguistics of cricket can be difficult to decipher. A player might hit a googly (a throw that veers sharply to the leg side of a right-handed batsman, if that clarifies things) or grab a lolly (an easy catch). Break one’s duck and you’ll be scoring the first run in an inning.
Do you find this befuddling? Imagine how someone versed in cricket but not in American football feels when they hear players screaming out words like hut, hike, blue 42, and a litany of other phrases that make sticky wicket seem like plain speech in comparison. More specifically, why does a quarterback scream hut just before a play is initiated?
The National Football League (NFL) wondered this at the start of their 2009-2010 season, so they asked linguist Ben Zimmer to provide some context. According to Zimmer, a quarterback yelling hut or variations like hut 1, hut 2, hut 3 is taking a cue from military cadence. In the service, hut often replaces a syllable in a word to make it sharper and more distinctive. Think of a drill sergeant yelling “atten-hut!” (“attention!”) at cadets. The wordplay seems to galvanize the listener’s focus, which is particularly helpful when you’re about to undergo a rigorous military march or are in imminent danger of being obliterated by a 300-pound lineman.
Hut likely originated during World War II, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that football players began adopting it for their simulated war game on the field. (Many players and coaches were former soldiers, making the evolution of the word easy to chart.) Zimmer added that hut is a clean, concise word that can be barked over distances, which is beneficial to quarterbacks who need to be heard.
So where did the military get hut from? Animal herders. Words like hip, hup, and hep date back centuries, with hup in use beginning in the 18th century and hut in the 19th century. The military adopted variations early in the 20th century before settling on hut.
That other football staple, hike, has a much more linear origin. It came from football legend John Heisman, who started shouting it while playing for the University of Pennsylvania during the 1890-1891 season. He did it to avoid being tricked. As a center responsible for snapping the ball to the quarterback to begin the play, he usually got scratched on his leg as a signal. When an opposing player deviously touched his leg and made him flip the ball, it screwed up the play. Saying hike—which means to pull or raise with a sudden motion—eliminated the leg-rubbing deception. (It should be noted that other sources put Heisman’s hike epiphany later in his career, after he became a coach.)
Most players aren’t necessarily aware of the origins of hut, only that it’s become a tenured part of the game. “I have no idea why we say hut,” Jason Kelce, a center for the Philadelphia Eagles, told The New York Times in 2018. “I guess because it’s better than yelling, ‘Now,’ or ‘Go.’ Some people have used ‘Go’ and that’s awful. That doesn’t sound like football.”
Other terms, like blue 18 and the like, are alternately signals to change up an offensive play or meant to confuse the opposing team in the hope of scoring. Sorry—in the hope of breaking one's duck.
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