What's the etymology of the British informal usage of the word "nutmeg" as a verb to mean "kicking a ball through a player's legs", usually used in football? It doesn't seem to bear any relation to the noun.


2 Answers 2


This is what Wikipedia considers the most likely:

The most likely source, however, was postulated by Peter Seddon in his book "Football Talk - The Language And Folklore Of The World's Greatest Game". The word arose because of a sharp practice used in nutmeg exports between America and England. "Nutmegs were such a valuable commodity that unscrupulous exporters were to pull a fast one by mixing a helping of wooden replicas into the sacks being shipped to England," writes Seddon. "Being nutmegged soon came to imply stupidity on the part of the duped victim and cleverness on the part of the trickster." It soon caught on in football, implying that the player whose legs the ball had been played through had been tricked, or, nutmegged.

Hence it would bear some tenuous relationship to the noun. The Guardian also has an article about this; it agrees with Wikipedia on the most likely source of the word:

As he points out, the verb nutmegged is listed by the Oxford English Dictionary as "arising in the 1870s which in Victorian slang came to mean 'to be tricked or deceived, especially in a manner which makes the victim look foolish'."

  • I suppose it's quite possible OED's Victorian slang origin is true in some senses, but so far as I can see that meaning probably fell into disuse long ago. If it weren't for the alliteration with legs, I doubt it would have suddenly come to prominence as a footballing term in the 1990s. Sep 24, 2011 at 15:03
  • @FumbleFingers The Guardian article clearly states it has existed as a football term long before the 90s.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Sep 26, 2011 at 9:39
  • @z7sg: I don't doubt it was in use earlier. But I still think it became far more widely used in the football context about 1990. Probably the proximate cause was newspaper sports articles taking it up more, but it seems likely the legs alliteration would have helped it to catch on in the sporting public at large. Sep 26, 2011 at 18:07

Here's some further corroboration for @drm65 from Etymonline which even pinpoints the location of those crafty colonists:

Amer.Eng. colloquial wooden nutmeg "anything false or fraudulent" is from 1830. Connecticut is called the Nutmeg State "in allusion to the story that wooden nutmegs are there manufactured for exportation." [John Russell Bartlett, "Dictionary of Americanisms," 1859]

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