Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Lin-guistics of Lin-sanity

In a mere two weeks, New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin has gone from an unknown to the most compelling story in sports. For basketball commentators, he's been the gift that keeps on giving: turning in amazing performances night after night since coming off the bench and propelling the Knicks to a seven-game winning streak. His humble personal profile is in stark contrast to the over-the-top enthusiasm his play has generated, which goes by the buzzword (perhaps you've heard?) Linsanity.

It all started back on February 4, when Lin, an overlooked, undrafted player from Harvard (not exactly a basketball powerhouse) was brought in for a game against the New Jersey Nets. He scored 25 points in that game, and since then he's been on an unprecedented tear. Not only is he just the shot in the arm that the troubled Knicks franchise needed, he has also quickly become an Asian American icon, rare in sports and exceedingly rare in the NBA. (Lin was born in California but his parents emigrated from Taiwan.)

During Lin's improbable ascension, one word has been repeated over and over again: Linsanity. The first mention I've found is in hyphenated form, in a headline for an online article on that fateful Feb. 4 game: "It's Lin-sanity! Knicks score win over Nets" read the headline that night on Frank Isola's report for the New York Daily News. Linsanity was also a hit on Twitter, where it became a popular hashtag after dramatic Knick wins. (The NBA's precursor for Linsanity, by the way, was Vinsanity, coined in1998 when Vince Carter played his phenomenal rookie season with the Toronto Raptors.)

Before this month, the word Linsanity had shown up in relation to a very different celebrity: the actress Lindsay Lohan. Gossip blogger Perez Hilton had used Linsanity to refer to Lohan and her erratic behavior since January 2009. Shortly thereafter he also began using Lindsanity, which ties Lindsay and insanity a bit more closely. There's quite a big difference, of course, between the Lin(d)sanity of Lohan's wacky personal life and the Linsanity that surrounds Jeremy Lin, a remarkably grounded young fellow. The Hollywood Gossip blog recently compared Lindsanity to Linsanity, and the results aren't pretty for Ms. Lohan.

Linsanity has turned into such a popular buzzword that some opportunists have tried to get into the action. Yenchin Chang of Alhambra, California was the first to file a trademark application for the term. The domain name Linsanity.com has also been claimed, of course, selling T-shirts and other Lin gear. The owners of the site run the Twitter account @jeremylinshow, where they say, "We knew that Jeremy would blow up like this one day, and bought the URL Linsanity.com years ago." The domain name was actually created on July 17, 2010. If it was really Jeremy Lin-inspired (and not, say, Lindsay Lohan-inspired), that would show remarkable foresight, since Lin signed his first NBA contract, with the Golden State Warriors, about a week after that.

Lin's last name, in its simplicity, has lent itself to all manner of eponymous puns beyond Linsanity. It certainly works better for creating eponyms than a long, difficult name like Blagojevich. In this regard it's more similar to a name of another transformational figure: Obama — named "Most Useful" in the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year voting for 2008, thanks to the creation of such blends as Obamanation, Obamamentum, Obamaphoria, and Obamarama. As for Lin, most of the punny coinages fall into three general groups:

  • Lin + word beginning with in-: Linsanity, Linsane, Lincredible, Linspirational, Linvincible, Linternational Love, To Linfinity and Beyond
    (Lin also combines with words beginning with im-, yielding both Lin-possible and Limpossible)
  • Lin + word beginning with Cin- or Cen- (where C is a consonant): Linderella, Super Lintendo, Linning, Linja assassin, Linsational
  • Lin + word ending with -lin': chilLIN, kilLIN, styLIN

Lin's been asked about all of the plays on his name. "I didn't know that you can turn Lin into so many things," he told the Daily News last week. "Me and my family were just laughing last night. I guess we underestimated how creative everybody can be."

Creative variations have been on display on fans' signs, both at home at Madison Square Garden and on road games. One sign changed the Knicks home arena into Madison Square Guard-Lin. Knicks color commentator Walt Frazier, who has a penchant for rhyming combinations like slicing and dicing and swooping and hooping, introduced Linning and winning to his repertoire. Linning has proved popular on Twitter too, likely a callback to the #winning hashtag that Charlie Sheen's antics inspired last year.

Gothamist has rounded up even more Lin puns, and if that's not enough, there are now websites like The Jeremy Lin Word Generator and Linify It for the truly Linsatiable. (These sites recall Slate's Encyclopedia Baracktannica of 2008, in which words were "Obamafied.") China has also gotten into the act, since the Lin story is huge news there. As Victor Mair reports on Language Log, Linsanity was first translated into Mandarin Chinese as Línfēngkuáng, though that actually works out to something like "Insane Lin," which is a bit off-target. "It is not cute or clever the way Linsanity is," Mair writes. "It is clumsy and clunky; just doesn't sound right." Fortunately, a better alternative has sprung up: Línláifēng, which Mair explains is a pun on the Chinese expression rénláifēng ("get hyped up in front of an audience").

As I told Bloomberg News, Linsanity is emerging as an early contender for the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year. Will its popularity, and that of other Lin-novations, die down as the basketball season progresses? Only time will tell, but I'm just glad that Linsanity has replaced Tebowing as the sports eponym of the moment.

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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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