Corinthian Spirit.

In a NYT soccer story today (archived) I hit this paragraph and was puzzled:

With temperatures pushing north of 30 degrees, both sides could have been content for a score draw, passing it nicely around the back, but they went for it instead. It was a little error-strewn, but extremely entertaining. So what brought it all together? A desire to avoid France in the last 16 and enter the “weaker” side of the knockout bracket? The Corinthian spirit? Slovakia and Romania put on an attacking feast. Purely for the love of the game.

What was “the Corinthian spirit”? A quick mental review of my knowledge of Corinth ancient and modern brought no useful results, so I turned to Google, and Wikipedia explained all:

Corinthian Football Club was an English amateur football club based in London between 1882 and 1939. Above all, the club is credited with having popularised football around the world, having promoted sportsmanship and fair play, and having championed the ideals of amateurism.

The club was famed for its ethos of “sportsmanship, fair play, [and] playing for the love of the game”. Corinthian Spirit, still understood as the highest standard of sportsmanship, is often associated with the side. This spirit was famously summed up in their attitude to penalties; “As far as they were concerned, a gentleman would never commit a deliberate foul on an opponent. So, if a penalty was awarded against the Corinthians, their goalkeeper would stand aside, lean languidly on the goalpost and watch the ball being kicked into his own net. If the Corinthians themselves won a penalty, their captain took a short run-up and gave the ball a jolly good whack, chipping it over the crossbar.” Among others, Real Madrid were inspired to adopt Corinthian’s white strip, while Sport Club Corinthians Paulista in Brazil and Zejtun Corinthians in Malta adopted their name.

I am in awe, and I presume soccer fans of the day were as well, since the phrase has survived the club that inspired it by almost a century, at least in the memory of Carl Anka (the sportswriter). Is this still a familiar term to the general footie-loving public?


  1. I would guess the Corinthians FC are remembered by some UK soccer fans in the same way as some US baseball fans remember the heroes of the dead-ball era and earlier.

    “Corinthian spirit” meaning ‘fair play” is still a well known phrase, though the stereotypical fair-play sport is cricket, since unfair play is “not cricket”. See also “Football is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans; rugby is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen.”

    Not so well known is that “Corinthian spirit” did not originate from the football club, which took its name from a pre existing sense. The OED sv Corinthian, and earlier Corinthian yacht clubs, show the ideal of the effortless amateur was elitist in a social sense as well as a sporting sense, cousin to the idle rich playboy.

  2. I didn’t think to check the OED, but having done so, I find no reference to “Corinthian spirit” — only the unexplained senses adj. 4, “(U.S.) Yachting. Amateur,” and n. 2.c. “A wealthy amateur of sport who rides his or her own horses, steers his or her own yacht, etc.; esp. in U.S. an amateur yachtsman.” And the Wikipedia article does not say where the team got its name, just that “Wednesday Club” was changed to “Corinthian Football Club” on the suggestion of Harry Swepstone. Do you have inside information? Because so far I see no reason to think that “Corinthian spirit” (in this sense) did not originate from the football club and every reason to think that it did. A Google Books search on the phrase limited to the 19th century shows only references to Ancient/Biblical Corinth, with no amateurism involved.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    I am puzzled by why the NYT did not translate “north of 30 degrees” into AmEng. Maybe they expect that the only people who read their soccer coverage are so deracinated and un-American that they eschew Fahrenheit temperatures?

  4. An excellent point.

  5. “Corinthian spirit” did not originate from the football club

    Erk, sloppy me, that’s not what I meant. The subsequent fixed expression “Corinthian spirit” does indeed allude to the football club. When the club chose its name, “Corinthian” did not have that “fair play” meaning. The club name was “slightly self mockingly” [note 98] alluding to earlier senses, cf NED n.2c and also 2 2a 2b:–

    B. n. 2. (From the proverbial wealth, luxury, and licentiousness of ancient Corinth):

    a. A wealthy man [1577]; a profligate idler; a gay, licentious man [1697]; also, a shameless or ‘brazen-faced’ fellow [1785] Obs.

    b. A ‘swell’; a man of fashion about town. [1819]

    c. A wealthy amateur of sport who rides his own horses, steers his own yacht, etc.; esp. in U.S. an amateur yachtsman. [1823]

  6. Ah, thanks — that makes sense!

  7. Jen in Edinburgh says

    As so often, I’m not entirely sure what we’re arguing about, so I’ll try to clarify my own mind at least!

    The word Corinthian for a sportsman didn’t orginate with the football club – the OED definitions focus more on the fashionable side of it, but here’s Wikipedia again (
    Dixon Kemp wrote in A Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing published in 1900, “The term Corinthian half a century ago was commonly applied to the aristocratic patrons of sports, some of which, such as pugilism, are not now the fashion.”

    And being fashionable in those days may have included an interest in sport, if you take ‘sport’ as mostly riding, driving carriages and boxing, rather than the modern sense of team games – here’s a bit about Corinthians from one of the books the OED quotes (
    Here, was to be seen the dashing Corinthian tickling up his tits, and his bang-up set-out of blood and bone, giving the go-by to a heavy drag laden with eight brawney bull-faced blades

    The Royal Corinthian Yacht Club, as mollymooly noted, was founded in 1872.

    Gentlemanly ideals in sport don’t originate with the club either, although you’d probably want to go looking for them in cricket and maybe golf before that – football is a relative newcomer as the archtypal British sport.

    Whether the specific phrase ‘Corinthian spirit’ comes from the football club, or whether it already existed as part of what they were naming themselves for, I haven’t a clue.

  8. I guess the harried copy editor assumed “north of 30 degrees” meant latitude, not temperature.

  9. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Corinthians F.C. still exists after a fashion, by the way, under the rather comical name of Corinthian-Casuals.

  10. (I turned your URL into a link because it wasn’t working on its own.)

  11. cuchuflete says

    “ Here, was to be seen the dashing Corinthian tickling up his tits, and his bang-up set-out of blood and bone, giving the go-by to a heavy drag laden with eight brawney bull-faced blades”

    DeepL was of no help. Could some kind soul translate the above into English, please.

  12. It’s interesting that that text has quite a number of Corinthian columns as well, not to mention a Corinthian bear.

  13. I was moving fast and glossed “north of 30 degrees” as “colder than 30 F”, which is ridiculous in many ways, including the fact that a summertime tournament in Europe is not going to produce such temps, but that’s how I moved on.

    Score draw is also a term that I don’t hear in American soccer usage. It’s a weird term since it would seem to express the opposite of what it means, and I’d more likely hear it called a scoreless draw by American soccer fans. I don’t hear “footie” either except among the most blatantly Europhilic. Thankfully, since it sounds like an erotic fetish to my ear.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    The varsity sailing team of the university where hat pursued his graduate studies in linguistics still formally retains the name (supposedly dating to 1881) of “Yale Corinthian Yacht Club,” with the “Corinithian” seeming totally unnecessary except as a historical curiosity.

    Their annual “alumni regatta” is now named for a onetime team captain who is a fellow I knew vaguely when he was a year behind me as an undergraduate (don’t think he took any linguistics classes), but who was subsequently murdered on 9/11/01.

  15. Ryan: “score draw” means, as you expected, a draw (tie) which is not scoreless. It occurs in the article when the score is 1–1. The distinction is unimportant in most soccer situations, including the match in question, so I don’t know why it wasn’t just “draw”. It is relevant for gamblers playing the football pools, where a score draw counts better than a scoreless draw.

    “Footie” I noticed a lot in Australia in 2004 meaning any of various flavours of football. It was uncommon in the UK at the time

  16. cuchuflete says

    Corinthian is, according to a google search, often part of yacht club names.

    Corinthian Yacht Club
    Marblehead, MA

    Wolfeboro Corinthian Yacht Club
    Wolfeboro, NH

    Corinthian Yacht Club
    Essington, PA

    And others. Digging into 60 year old memories of undergraduate times, I recalled the Dartmouth Corinthian Yacht Club on Lake Mascoma in New Hampshire.

  17. London Corinthian Sailing Club, Est. 1894, still very much going strong. (Based a little way along the Thames from where I learnt messing about in boats.)

    Yes, yacht clubs is the first thing I thought of for Corinthian.

    “Footie” I noticed a lot in Australia in 2004 meaning any of various flavours of football. It was uncommon in the UK at the time

    In NZ, too. Aussie has: Rugby League, ‘Aussie Rules’, Rugby Union, Soccer very much minor. Which Footie code is more prominent depends very much where you’re talking about. In NZ, Soccer is really a game for amateurs: our International team is drawn from expats playing Professionally elsewhere. We’ve once got a team into the World Cup; knocked out in the qualifiers.

  18. “Here, was to be seen the dashing Corinthian tickling up his tits, and his bang-up set-out of blood and bone, giving the go-by to a heavy drag laden with eight brawney bull-faced blades”

    DeepL was of no help. Could some kind soul translate the above into English, please.

    something like this, loosely:

    “here was to be seen the stylish and manly gentleman amateur racer* lightly whipping on his impressive array of horses, outdistancing a heavy open carriage weighed down by eight muscley bull-faced** young-men-about-town”

    * the “racer” part is probably meant metaphorically, since the scene is heavy traffic at picadilly circus.

    ** possibly transparently about the animal (wide-forehead, angry disposition), but there might be some particular idiom of the period in there; i hear it as also emphasizing the ordinary-englishness (“john bull”) of the men in the drag. it could also be some thoroughly individual image, though: compare paul simon’s enigmatic “bat-faced girl” (janelle bassett, apparently).

  19. cuchuflete says

    Thank you, rozele.

  20. Todd added bull-faced to his version of Johnson’s Dictionary, quoting Dryden, who also used it of Jacob Tonson, the bookseller.

    It’s also in the OED as a variant of bull-face, although it does not give any particular refinement of the compound’s definition.

  21. Rozele, does your translation include “tickling uo his tits”? That was what threw me, and i’m not clear where it would be in your rendition.

  22. i glossed it as “lightly whipping on”, but changed the syntax a fair amount to clarify the sense. “tits” here (as best i can parse it) is “light hits, smacks”, as in “tit for tat”. as i read it, the “and” between “the dashing Corinthian tickling up his tits” and “his bang-up set-out of blood and bone” is marking two things to be seen: the metaphoric charioteer plying his whip, and the animals he’s hitting. i squeezed them into one unit. i do wonder if what was intended was “ticking up his tits” (counting them off, running up a number of them) and the “l” got in there by accident at some point; i’m assuming not, since “tickling” often goes with whip-work in this kind of writing.

  23. A scan of the source shows many of the words italicised in the original, though not in the Gutenberg transcript. This suggests to me that even in 1821 they were items of unusual slang, being strung together in an edifying/vaunting display.

  24. PlasticPaddy says

    Tit = (a) a horse, orig. small or half-grown[SE until c.1800].

  25. Thanks, I thought “tit” must have such a meaning just from the structure of the phrase “tickling up his tits.”

  26. Remember car commercials touting “Corinthian leather”? Reportedly made in Newark, New Jersey.

  27. cuchuflete says

    “ Remember car commercials touting “Corinthian leather”? “

  28. Ricardo Montalban was a fountain of memes.

  29. corrected! grateful thanks, PasticPaddy!

  30. PlasticPaddy says

    No worries. You did a much better job on the whole thing than I would have. I thought blades were oarsmen.😊

  31. Here’s an explanation of Corinthianism as it pertains to yachting, but presumably other sports as well. This is on the site of the Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club (one of many CYCs as noted above by cuchuflete) quoting from the UK’s Royal Corinthian Yacht Club.

  32. The ancient city of Corinth, Greece (now Korinthiakós)

    Tsk. The Greek name of the city is Kórinthos; Korinthiakós is the adjective.

  33. Stu Clayton says

    That fine 1961 film A Corinthian in the Sun may serve as aide-mémoire.

  34. Stephen D says

    I don’t know if it’s irrelevant to mention Pierce Egan’s 1821 publication “Life in London: or, The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorne, Esq. and his Elegant Friend, Corinthian Tom, Accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis”; or to enquire how Tom and Jerry (but not Bob) gave their names to cartoon animals.

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