Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Of Showdowns, Throwdowns, and Hoedowns

Last week we featured a debate over contemporary usage of whom, with Baltimore Sun copy editor John McIntyre squaring off against Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky. To be honest, the exchange was a bit too civil and reasonable to live up to its billing as a "usage showdown" — at least based on the Visual Thesaurus definition of showdown as "a hostile disagreement face-to-face." I was amused to see that on his copy-editing blog, "You Don't Say," John McIntyre facetiously referred to the debate with an even more inappropriate term: smackdown, which most people (in the U.S. at least) would associate with professional wrestling. Other violent confrontations ending in -down include beatdown and throwdown. And where do hoedowns fit into all of this?

Here's the lowdown, starting with showdown. In poker (and some other card games), after the last round of betting is over the remaining players show their hands to determine a winner. This revealing of cards has been known as a showdown since at least the 1880s. (A New York Times article from May 28, 1882, for instance, describes a climactic moment in a poker game involving an Apache chief: "There being nothing left to bet, a show-down was in order.") From the card-playing sense of showdown, it's a short step to the more metaphorical idea of a final confrontation or reckoning. American English is full of such expressions borrowed from poker: ante up, blue chip, call one's bluff, cash in, high roller, wild card, and so forth.

Throwdown, meanwhile, most likely comes from the world of wrestling, where the phrasal verb "to throw (someone) down" has been used since the late 19th century to refer to bringing an opponent to the ground. The noun throwdown was made out of the verb to describe such a fall, and the term eventually got extended to other sporting contexts. But it took on a whole new meaning in the hip-hop culture of the 1980s. To "throw down" in hip-hop circles means to battle one's rivals in a competition of freestyle rapping or break-dancing. (This is possibly influenced by the expression "throw down the gauntlet.") The usage dates all the way back to the early days of the rap scene in the South Bronx, where parties featuring these competitive faceoffs were called throwdowns.

Throwdown also developed a more aggressive meaning of a physical confrontation. Beatdown and smackdown are similarly redolent of violence, as they're related to "put the beat/smack down (on someone)," colloquial expressions for pummeling an opponent. Barry Michael Cooper's foreword to the 1989 book Do the Right Thing (featuring the screenplay to Spike Lee's landmark movie) contains the line, "The brothers from Brooklyn indeed seem to enjoy the big beatdown. Look at Mike Tyson." And the World Wrestling Foundation (now known as World Wrestling Entertainment) popularized smackdown beginning in 1999 with its televised program, "Friday Night SmackDown!"

Hoedowns predate poker showdowns and wrestling throwdowns, and they're much less confrontational (except perhaps the one in the Beatles song "Rocky Raccoon"). The earliest known appearance of hoedown, meaning "a noisy, convivial dance," is from 1841, and it likely originates from the resemblance of dance moves to digging the ground with a hoe. (As early as 1807, Washington Irving described one particular dancing motion as "hoe corn and dig potatoes.") Hoedown later came to mean a party featuring lively dancing to folk music, or any rollicking good time.

Maybe next time we should have a "Usage Hoedown" instead of a "Usage Showdown"! Might be more fun that way.

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Ben Zimmer 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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