The Language of Referees

This week’s main report discusses some of the language used when talking about one of the most controversial people on the pitch: referees. You can listen to the report by clicking on the link below, while vocabulary support (in bold) appears at the foot of the report. If you have questions or comments, email us at: (Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash)


Football has a list of laws for on-field behaviour but that does not mean that all footballers around the world follow the game in the same way. There are a variety of interpretations that may be based on culture, history or ignorance of these laws which can then cause arguments or disagreements between teams, fans and players. Luckily, there is someone to control the game, to ensure that teams adhere to these laws of the game: the referee.

The Referee

The referee (or the ‘ref’) traditionally wore a black kit so as to stand out and not clash with any of the players and therefore was often termed ‘the man in black’. However, as the referee’s uniform or kit can now be a variety of colours he or she is often known as the man – or the woman – in the middle or the man in charge. As he is in charge of the game he is often known by the term ‘official’ and indeed, his team of assistants are collectively known as the officials. These include the two assistant referees (formerly known as linesmen) who run along the touchline. Their job includes checking to see if the ball has left the pitch, to determine whether a player is offside or not, or to call the referee’s attention to something that he (she) may not have seen. There is also a fourth official who stands near the managers on the touchline and helps the referee with substitutions and time keeping, as well as keeping check of sometime-aggressive managers.

Tools of the Trade

In order to help the referee control the game they are supplied with two important tools: a whistle and two cards. The whistle is there in order to call attention to any foul play or to note the start and the end of the half or the game. So, we say that the referee blew his whistle to start the game; he blew for half-time or he blew full-time or that he blew for a foul. The cards – one yellow and one red – allow the referee to punish foul play. The yellow is similar to a warning – indeed, we sometimes call a yellow card a caution, while the red card sees the player sent off the field of play. Before the introduction of cards the referee simply wrote down the name of a player in his book when foul play had occurred; he booked a player – the player received a booking. For example, when players fail to respect the officials by using bad language then the referee can book the player for dissent.


Despite the existence of the laws of the game there are many grey areas – football is a fluid sport after all – and this gives rise to many interpretations of how the game should be played. Some referees like to play advantage, that is, rather than blowing the whistle for a foul the ref can wait and see if the fouled team can still benefit from the play; to see if any advantage has occurred. Other referees are whistle happy, that is, they stop the game every time there is a foul. This kind of referee can be called ‘fussy’ or accused of not letting the game flow. Of course, players should always play to the whistle and only stop playing when the referee halts the game and is not simply waving play on.

In recent years, with football becoming more pressurised the role of the referee has become a more difficult one. But it is a vital one for without the ref there simply would not be any football.


Vocabulary support

The man in the middle: Another name for the referee

adhere to these laws: To follow the rules

clash: To have the same colours as

touchline: The lines around the side of the pitch

To blow for full-time: To end the game

gives rise to: leads to

play advantage: To allow play to continue

whistle happy: A ref that does not allow the game to flow
Check out our glossary of footballing phrases here If you have any suggestions, contact us at

Learn English Through Football
Learn English Through Football
Learn English Through Football

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