Writers Talk About Writing
Playing Ball and Playing with the Language
Ripped. Slapped. Poked. Swatted. If you've been watching the World Series, you've probably heard some of these verbs for hitting a baseball.
Sports can involve a lot of repetition, so to make it different and exciting, sportscasters often use a wide variety of terms to describe the action. It is this variety, the tendency towards innovation that comes from so many opportunities over the course of a game to describe the same basic activities, that makes sports lingo an interesting object of study.
Words are used in sports in interesting and unpredictable ways all the time. Take one of the more recent terms from basketball, posterize. If posterize was encountered on its own, outside a specific context, one might guess it would mean "to make into a poster." In basketball, however, posterize has a much more specific meaning: a shot over a defender, usually a dunk, so spectacular it could or should be preserved on a poster. The defending player who was dunked over has been posterized. This image of a helpless defender preserved forever is impossible to derive from the parts of the word itself and has become pure basketball lingo.
One often cited example is the past tense of the verb fly. The simple English past tense of fly is flew, as in "He flew in from Las Vegas yesterday." In baseball, and only in baseball, however, if someone hit a fly ball into the air and it was caught last inning, the way to put that is to say that he "flied out to left." So if you have a player called up from the minors yesterday, who then got into the game that night, it's possible to say, "He flew in from Vegas yesterday afternoon, and promptly got up and flied out to left." Occasionally you'll hear flew in the baseball context, but flied is much more popular.
There's a lot of shorthand in sports, and one amusing coinage that doesn't really save much time at all is something you hear as part of a late-breaking update. The anchor of a football pregame show will say something like, "That running back won't be playing today, he has a knee." While one would hope he in fact has two knees, this is obviously implying a knee injury of some sort. It seems clear in fact that the frame being used is "he has a _____ injury," where "injury" gets deleted. Evidence from this comes from the fact that you never hear things that don't fit in this frame, such as an affected plural body part, referred to in this way. In other words you don't hear, "He's not playing today, he has ribs." This sketchy version of an injury report may be a consequence of the fact that the extent of an injury is often unclear, so all that is known is the area in trouble. In everyday life though, it is probably foolish to claim, after stubbing your toe, that you "have a toe" as a way to get out of responsibilities — unless you want to get laughed at.
English changes the parts of speech of words all the time as needed, and in baseball, nouns become verbs constantly: a ball that came off the bat as a foul-tip can be foul-tipped, and you can even say of a check swing that the batter check-swung (as Fox announcer Harold Reynolds said in a World Series game). Recently, though, I ran into a verb that stopped me in my tracks from the world of boxing. A boxing decision occurs when there has been no knockout or technical knockout and the judges' scores must decide a winner. In a photo caption, I saw this state of affairs referred to as "Boxer A decisions Boxer B." As the American Heritage Dictionary notes, this usage of decision means "to defeat by a decision," and it can actually be found as early as 1930 in boxing literature.
As strange as this may seem, I think the use of the standard verb form of decision here ("Boxer A decides Boxer B") would be even stranger. Decides would be awkward even if one allows for a specialized use of the verb: decide does not in general take animate objects. (You don't "decide Jim," You "decide Jim's fate.") For decide to take an animate object ("Boxer B") would be pretty unusual, but the rules for the verb decision are a bit unclear. Can modifiers of decision, like split or unanimous, fit comfortably with the verb form? Could you say "Boxer A split-decisions Boxer B" or "Boxer A unanimously decisioned Boxer B"?
Sports leagues have systems of penalties and fouls for dealing with players who break the rules. An entirely different kind of "rule-breaking," though, is going on in the broadcast booth of every major sport. You'll consistently find syntax and word forms not used before. Some will make you cringe, but others might make you marvel at the fact that the announcer just said something brand-new. This kind of innovation is a testament to the elasticity of language, the wonderful way it can accommodate new forms without sacrificing comprehension. Language change and novelty happen all around us all the time, and sports broadcasts are a good place to witness it.