Swimmer Jargon: Our Mysterious Language

Courtesy: Corey He

As swimmers, we’ve crafted our own language that governs the way we train, swim, and race. We use this language almost naturally with our teammates and coaches — and yet, if we were to use this same language to some non-swimmers, they might raise some confused eyebrows at us.

Today, we’re exploring some examples of commonly used swimmer jargon — and mixing in some “non-swimmer” jargon as well.

Swimmer Jargon: “I scratched.”

Scratched what??

As swimmers, we know that this implies that you decided to drop out of one of your races prior to the start of the meet. Perhaps it’s your lucky day and your coach allows you to scratch that dreaded 400 IM or 200 fly that was going to ruin your day (spoiler: never count on this, because chances are slim).

Maybe your friends who run track may have a clue as to what you mean when you say you “scratched.” On the other hand, your other friends who play team sports may be wondering where exactly you scratched yourself — and if you might need a band-aid.

Non-Swimmer Jargon: “Did you win?”

The moment someone asks you this question in response to you telling them that you were at a swim meet the past weekend, you already know that they definitely have nothing to do with swimming. It seems to fly over the heads of many people that you — as an individual — cannot “win” a meet. You can win your heat or an event, or your team can win a meet, but you yourself cannot.

I guess you could emerge with a “high point” or “swimmer of the meet” award, but these are definitely not synonymous with the notion that a swimmer can win a meet.

No shame to anyone who asks you this question, though — or better yet, just reply with a quick “Yes, I did!” so they think you’re the best swimmer out there.

Swimmer Jargon: “Rainbow set.”

Unless you’re talking to a fellow swimmer or an athlete who does some sort of aerobic-based conditioning swimming, people are likely going to have no clue what you’re talking about if you bring up the rainbow set your coach put you through yesterday.

And if you’ve yet to do your first rainbow set, don’t worry — your time will come soon enough. You’ll find yourself fighting through an endless pattern of white, pink, red, blue, and even purple swims on not-so-generous intervals — and from that point onwards, you’ll never forget what a rainbow set is.

Swimmer Jargon: “I missed the wall.”

I genuinely have never heard this phrase come out of a non-swimmer’s mouth. Feel free to let me know, though, if you have — and in what context.

Obviously, we all know that this phrase means that you misjudged your flip-turn or open turn, and as a result, your legs pushed off of nothing but water. I’m not sure if any other people — or any other athletes, for that matter — ever need to push off of a wall in their daily lives, so you’re likely going to confuse some people if you ever say this out loud to non-swimmers.

Non-Swimmer Jargon: “Do you pee in the pool?”

Much like the first example, if someone is asking you this question, I am willing to bet money that that person is not a swimmer. As a swimmer, this is usually not the type of question that you ask another swimmer because you likely already know the answer — plus, is it worth even knowing the answer?

*Spoiler: the answer is probably yes.

Swimmer Jargon: “On the bottom/top.”

This has got to be something that only swimmers can understand. The top is the 60-second (or :00) mark, and the bottom is the 30-second mark. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other sport use the old-fashioned analog clocks that we often see on pool decks — and hence, if you said you were “leaving on the top,” only a swimmer would know what you’re talking about.

I’ve been seeing less and less of these clocks lately, though — it seems like most of these analog clocks are being replaced by newer digital clocks that are easier to see from a distance. Makes me nostalgic just thinking about it…

Swimmer Jargon: “SHAKE!!”

As a distance swimmer — and as teammates of those who are distance swimmers — we hear this word far too often. If you’re the one racing, seeing your counter shaking as you near the wall is perhaps one of the most frustrating yet empowering things you can see.

And, of course, if you’re the one counting, shaking the counter and cheering on your teammate — with a bunch of other teammates around you — is always a great feeling, too.

Much like swimming, many other sports use a bell for the final lap, but I’ve yet to see another sport use counters. Yet another thing that makes swimming one of the best sports out there.

Final Thoughts

I’m sure every sport has its own “vernacular” or “special language,” but swimmer jargon is truly special. It’s a way for us swimmers to share our experiences and discuss the awful aerobic set that happened during last night’s practice, all while leaving our non-swimmer friends completely confused.

Let me know in the comments if I missed any important jargon. I have a feeling that I might’ve forgotten a couple of swimming adages, though it’s also been a minute since I’ve been in the water…

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ACC fan
23 days ago

I once told a massage therapist that the left side of my neck was tight because I “breath on my right”. She said, “Oh, how is that possible?” She had no idea what I meant.

Stephen Fedec
24 days ago

My first thought before reading the article was in reference to what your time is either in an interval or for a race…. For example, “I went” 23.5 for my 50 LCM.

Butter Dressel
27 days ago

Heads/Tails has always been a fun one for me

Judd Jones
28 days ago

Non-swimmer: How many laps was it?

Swimmer: How many lengths was it?

Non-swimmers seem distressed when I tell them there is no such thing as a “lap” in swimming.

Free Thinker
Reply to  Judd Jones
27 days ago
  • a stage in a swim consisting of two lengths (or one length) of a pool.
  • “everyone did ten laps of the pool”
grizzled bastard
Reply to  Judd Jones
27 days ago

Laps is colloquial. On the east coast, we did all call it LAPS. It wasn’t lengths. And everyone knew what a lap was. Now the meet refs all said LENGTHS so no one got confused.

Coach Clark
28 days ago

Negative split, What did you go?, Save it up Sally, touched out, and the dreaded DFL.

“I went 502 in the 5. Tried to negative split. Save it up Sally in the lane next to me touched me out. Ended up DFL.”

I miss the ISL (go dawgs)
28 days ago

As our wise queen Emma Sticklen once said – “UNDIES UNDIES UNDIES!”

Ranger Coach
Reply to  I miss the ISL (go dawgs)
27 days ago

Wise words to live by.

28 days ago

“went vertical” as in butterfly. (a.k.a. “butter struggle” or “butter ugly”)
“hit by a piano” as in 200 butterfly.
“garbage yardage” as in my coach came to practice without thinking about the workout in advance.
“IM” I was totally baffled by this one at my first swim practice when I was a kid. When I asked what it meant, I was told, “individual medley” which was extremely unhelpful. About the 5th person I asked finally explained it to me in non-swimmer language.
“psych sheets”

Ranger Coach
Reply to  NoFlyKick
27 days ago

I coach high school. The one year, my assistant was a track coach. Her first question to me was “what is an IM?” I tried to explain, but she didn’t understand the strokes. She also thought relays were the same as in track. She also could not read a heat sheet. I ran track in college and the heat sheets are not that different. She was a teacher and was assigned to be my coach. She did not last past a year. I now get to pick my own assistant coach.

Reply to  Ranger Coach
27 days ago

I was a starter at a middle school track meet last year. WHAT A MESS! It made a rec League mini meet run by college kids and parents look organized

28 days ago

Well, there is certainly no other sport where you can tell your teammates “I was ripping undies today” and have nobody question you.

The big one is swim sets though. A bunch of random letters and numbers and abbreviations that to us is like a secret code that makes perfect sense but would totally confuse anyone else.

4×100 desc @1:30 6 UW OEW

4×200 3-5-6-9 BC @ 3:00 + pads & buoy

10×50 br @:50 odd-2K1P even-DPS

200 pink/red @2:30 + snork
4×50 desc to 2pace :45
100 fast hit backhalf 2pace

Those 4 examples only scratch the surface, especially when you get into more technically specific drills.

Ranger Coach
Reply to  saltie
27 days ago

I have a football player on my team. He says that when I read the sets out loud, it sounds like a really complicated football play. For example, 10×100 odd free, even primary on 2, hold 1:08 on odds and 1:22 on evens, feet past flags off each wall, no breathing red zone (the pool we practice in has red and white lane lines and are solid red in the flags), leave on the bottom, sounds like a football play to him.

Last edited 27 days ago by Ranger Coach