Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

A "Final Four" of March Madness Lingo

With the teams competing in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament whittled down to the Final Four, "March Madness" is coming to a close. (Actually, as has been the case for a few decades now, March Madness extends into the beginning of April, when the semifinal and final games are played.) In honor of college hoops, I've selected a "Final Four" of important terms associated with the tournament.

First off, there's brackets. As I wrote recently in my weekly Wall Street Journal column, the term bracket started off in architecture and interior decor before labeling punctuation marks used to set aside text, either [square brackets] or <angle brackets>. In tennis tournaments like Wimbledon, players were "bracketed" together based on their seedings. (Seeding, by the way, originated because the top players in a tournament needed to be spread around, like sowing seeds, to make sure they didn't compete against each other too early.)

College basketball developed its own system of tournament seeding within four regional divisions. The tournament originally just had two teams in each region, but now the field has expanded to 64, with teams seeded 1 through 16 in each regional (not counting an opening round of four "play-in" games). As the field has grown, bracket has evolved with an oddly recursive usage: referring to the individual match-ups, to each of the four regionals, or to the entire selection of teams in the tournament visualized as a tree diagram. Those wagering on the games fill out their brackets ahead of time, hoping that their choices aren't waylaid by a bracket-buster: a team that upsets a top seed, like No. 14 Mercer knocking off No. 3 Duke this year.

The pseudo-science of picking which teams will advance has been dubbed bracketology. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Mike Jensen first called St. Joseph's University spokesman Joe Lunardi a "bracketologist" in February 1996 (and then again the following month), and Lunardi himself was quick to embrace bracketology as his own.

Bracketologists distinguish themselves by correctly prognosticating which top-seeded teams might be vulnerable to upsets; in other words, they don't simply pick chalk, or the favorites of the tournament. I explained the origins of chalk in a Word Routes column a few years ago:

The history of chalk dates back to the old days of horse-racing, when bookmakers (or "bookies") would set the odds for each horse by writing them on a chalkboard at on-track gambling stations. The odds would change during the pre-race betting period depending on the amount wagered on each horse, so the bookmakers would often need to erase the posted odds and "chalk up" new ones before the beginning of the race.

The bookies at the track had to be skillful with the chalk to keep their slate-boards up to date with the latest odds. In the reporting on horse-racing around the turn of the twentieth century, sports journalists often referred to bookmakers with such flowery appellations as "the lively knights of the chalk and blackboard," or more simply, "the knights of the chalk." Chalk gradually came to stand for the bookmakers and their oddsmaking though the process of metonymy, defined as "substituting the name of an attribute or feature for the name of the thing itself."

[Read the rest here.]

From brackets and chalk we move to two nicknames for the tournament itself. One is The Big Dance, which the NCAA trademarked in 2002. Word sleuth Barry Popik has turned up examples of the tournament being called "the big dance" two decades before that, in 1982. That year, the New York Times quoted North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano as saying, "I feel we deserve a spot in the NCAA tournament next week. I think it would be a shame with 22 victories not to be invited to the big dance." The invitations to "the big dance" are made on Selection Sunday, one of several alliterative two-word phrases used in the tournament, including the numerical names for the winnowing of the field, from the Sweet Sixteen to the Elite Eight to the Final Four.

Which brings us to the equally alliterative March Madness. While March and madness first fell together thanks to the expression "mad as a March hare," the phrase came into its own in Midwestern high school basketball tournaments. The Los Angeles Times recently told the accepted tale, that March Madness was coined by Henry V. Porter to describe the Illinois high school championship in 1939. But Barry Popik was quick to point out that neighboring Indiana has a prior claim, as there are examples of March Madness being used for basketball tournaments there all the way back to 1931. (Confronted with Popik's evidence, the L.A. Times admirably issued a correction to their article.) Still, it was Illinois that was chiefly associated with March Madness before Brent Musburger of CBS (who had covered high school sports in Chicago) applied it to the national tournament in 1982.

For a different type of bracketology, check out Ben Yagoda's "Language March Madness," introduced on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Lingua Franca blog and continued on Yagoda's own blog. You can help select the Final Four in that tournament, in which the competitors are various "sins against the language." Which is worse, "vagueness and abstraction" or "leaving out a comma after a parenthetical phrase"? You decide!


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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