sports

Funny words are par for the course

funny_words

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, May 20, 2018.

I was watching golf on television when my daughter, age 8 or 9 at the time, asked me what “par” meant.

I understood her bafflement. As a family, we had only played at courses with windmills and waterfalls; shooting par wasn’t our concern at Mulligan’s Island or Adventureland.

So, on this day, I told Julie the term denotes the number of strokes a good golfer is expected to use to sink his or her ball on any given hole. And, being a word nerd, I wondered where par came from. A quick search at the then-new etymonline.com revealed that it’s Latin for “equal,” which makes sense. When you par a hole, you equal the expected score.

Par isn’t the only peculiar term you’ll hear on PGA broadcasts. In the early 20th century, “bird” was slang for anything excellent. Hence, holing your ball at one stroke below par became known as a birdie. Keeping with the avian theme, an eagle means you beat par by two strokes, and shooting three under par on a hole is known as an albatross. The rare seabird is an apt symbol for a rare score.

Tennis serves up its share of quirky words. “Love” is the one that stands out, but it has nothing to do with romance. Rather, it means zero, as in “Rafael Nadal is up 40-love.” A popular, but unproven, etymological theory is that love is an Anglicization of the French word “l’oeuf,” which means egg, owing to an egg’s resemblance to a zero.

Baseball is in a league of its own when it comes to lingo. The uncovered seats out beyond the outfield are called bleachers because, in the late 1800s, these seats were simple board benches that got bleached by the sun. Spectators there hope to catch a ball when a batter “goes yard” and hits a home run.

If a left-hander is on the mound, we might refer to him as a “southpaw.” I like the etymological explanation that says the word was coined because baseball diamonds typically oriented home plate to the west. That meant a pitcher’s left hand (or paw) would be to the south when facing a batter. However, the term is found in earlier references to boxing, where the ring’s orientation has no relation to the sun (and a pugilist’s haymaker may leave his foe seeing stars).

Former Red Sox southpaw Bill Lee sometimes threw an Eephus pitch, which is a low-speed, high-arching junk toss designed to catch hitters off guard. The irreverent hurler’s version of the pitch, dubbed a “Leephus,” didn’t fool Tony Perez in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series. The Cincinnati slugger smashed a dinger over the Green Monster, and the Reds went on to win the game and the championship. For years afterward, Lee quipped that the ball “is still rising.”

When benches clear for a baseball brawl, it may be called a “donnybrook,” a word that derives from a so-named suburb of Dublin, Ireland. In the 19th century, an annual fair in the town was known for such rowdiness; it was said that those gathered would sooner fight than eat. Bill Lee found himself in the middle of a donnybrook with the Yankees in 1976 and paid the price: torn ligaments in his pitching arm.

Umpires had tried, futilely, to intercede in the Sox-Yankees rhubarb (a synonym of donnybrook, with “barbarism” in its linguistic DNA). The word “umpire” is related to the Old French “nompere,” which means without peer or equal. The men in blue are certainly not the equals of the players; they always have the last say.

But try telling that to the fans (likely short for “fanatics”) in the bleachers. When they disagree with an umpire, they generally have another word for him: “bum” or “idiot,” if not something a lot more colorful.

On a sunny day at Fenway, that’s just par for the course.

 

Rooting for the Green Bay Heat?

Forward Gordon Hayward of the oddly named Utah Jazz during a game on Nov. 5 in Denver. AP PHOTO

Forward Gordon Hayward of the oddly named Utah Jazz
during a game on Nov. 5 in Denver. AP PHOTO

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, November 15, 2015.

When the Los Angeles Lakers play their next game at the Staples Center, a fan sitting courtside might wonder: Where are these lakes, anyway?

In Minnesota, it turns out.

Before the Lakers moved to L.A., they were the Minneapolis Lakers. That makes sense. Minnesota is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” When the franchise migrated to California in 1960, it left the lakes behind — but not the name. So for more than 50 years, in a place known for its lack of rainfall, people have flocked to see a team identified with bodies of water almost 2,000 miles away.

Here in New England, our team names present no such disconnect. The Patriots and Revolution reflect our colonial past, and the Celtics honor the region’s large Irish-American population.

The original owner of Boston’s professional hockey team, Charles Adams, wanted a name that conveyed speed, agility and cunning. “Bruins” delivered the hat trick. The name also lent itself to brown and yellow uniforms, which just happened to be the colors of the owner’s grocery chain. When Adams’ team skated, it was subliminal advertising on ice.

“Red Sox” became an official name in 1907, as the club adopted red as its color and featured a red stocking on the front of the players’ jerseys. In 1933, when George Preston Marshall moved his fledgling professional football team, the Boston Braves, to Fenway Park, he changed the team’s name to “Redskins” to align with the Red Sox. Four years later, the Boston Redskins became the Washington Redskins. So, interestingly, the colors and name of the Red Sox played an early and unwitting role in the controversy that surrounds the Redskins’ name and logo today.

The Los Angeles Lakers aren’t alone in maintaining a name at odds with a club’s locale.

The Baltimore Colts were named in recognition of that city’s rich history in horse racing. Indianapolis, where the Colts relocated in 1984, is famous for racing too, but the focus is on a different type of horsepower — the kind that propels Indy cars at speeds up to 225 miles per hour.

British Columbia is home to a large grizzly bear population, so naming a National Basketball Association team the Vancouver Grizzlies made sense. Keeping the name after the franchise moved to Memphis? Not so much.

New Orleans’ original NBA franchise produced one of my favorite team names: the Jazz. The non-plural noun stood out and conveyed the improvisational beauty that basketball can produce. But when the team moved 1,700 miles northwest, it committed a technical foul for name weirdness: Utah Jazz?

Next thing you know, the Heat will move to Green Bay and remain the Heat.

Relocation doesn’t always create naming mismatches. The San Diego Rockets became the Houston Rockets, and the new combination was a perfect fit. Houston is home to major aerospace companies and the Johnson Space Center.

Here in Rhode Island, the names for most of our college teams are traditional enough: Brown Bears, Providence Friars, Rhode Island Rams. That’s not the case at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In contrast to the fierce mascots at many universities — Go Tigers! Go Hawks! — UCSC teams are represented by the lowly Banana Slug, a 6- to 8-inch bright-yellow mollusk that slides around the forest floor in the Santa Cruz Mountains. At one point, a chancellor tried to change the name to something more conventional — the Sea Lions. But in a student vote, the Banana Slug prevailed.

In 2008, ESPN named it one of the 10 best mascots in college basketball.

Go Banana Slugs!

 

Game On: The Sport Of Naming Teams

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In honor of last night’s World Series finale and the kick-off of the NBA season this week, a re-post from two years ago about team names – the good, the bad, the curious, the hilarious:

The question at answers.com was logical enough: a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers wondered where all the lakes were in the City of Angels. In Minnesota, it turns out. Before the Lakers came to Tinseltown, they were the Minneapolis Lakers. Makes sense. Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes. When the franchise headed west, it left the lakes behind, but not the name. And for more than 50 years, in the most densely populated urban area in the United States, basketball fans have flocked to see a team with an idyllic, outdoorsy moniker.

Here in New England, our team names present no such hiccup. The Patriots and Revolution connect to our colonial past. The Celtics reflect Boston’s large Irish-American population. Red Sox became an official nickname in 1908, after the club adopted red as its color and featured a red stocking on the front of its players’ jerseys. The original owner of Boston’s professional hockey team wanted a nickname that suggested speed, agility, and cunning. Bruins delivered the hat trick. It also lent itself to brown and yellow uniforms, which just happened to be the colors of the owner’s grocery chain.

The Lakers are not alone in maintaining a nickname despite its disconnect to a new locale:

> The Baltimore Colts were named in honor of the region’s rich history in horse racing. Indianapolis, where the Colts moved, is famous for racing, too, but the focus is on a different type of horsepower.

> British Columbia is home to a large grizzly bear population. Naming an NBA team the Vancouver Grizzlies made sense; keeping the name when the franchise moved to Memphis did not. Favorite son Elvis has left the arena, and there is no risk of a grizzly attack outside.

> The New Orleans Jazz pioneered the use of singular nouns in team names (the Miami Heat, Colorado Avalanche, Orlando Magic, etc., would follow). It’s one of my all-time favorites. But when the franchise moved to Utah, the name became oxymoronic. Utah Jazz? Imagine Thelonious Monk sitting in with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

At the college level, leave it to two New England athletic powerhouses – Berklee College of Music and Rhode Island School of Design – to give us inspired team names. Berklee’s hockey squad – the IceCats – reflects the school’s contemporary music pedigree. (According to berkleegroove.com, “contrary to popular belief, some musicians actually are capable of playing sports.”)

And then there’s RISD’s hockey team. The Nads may strike you as a curious name, until you cheer on the team at the top of your lungs:

GO NADS! GO NADS!

In the universe of team names, the Nads are in a league of their own.

Word Games: The Language Of Sport

I love sports – and the words that games give us.

My daughter asked what “par” means the other day. I told her it’s a golf term that refers to the number of strokes a good player is expected to use to sink his or her ball on any given hole. The more interesting question followed: where does the word come from?

Par is Latin for equal. When you par a hole, you equal the expected score. Use fewer strokes and you’re under par; use more and you’re over par. Par first appeared as a golfing reference in 1898. The figure of speech “par for the course” dates back to 1928.

Love is a tennis term: Federer is up, 40-love. In the tennis sense, love has nothing to do with romance; it means zero. A popular theory is that it’s an anglicization (i.e., Englishification) of the French word l’oeuf, which means “egg”. Of course: an egg’s shape resembles a zero. Leave it to the French to get a food reference into sports parlance – and then abandon it when everyone else follows suit. They now use “zéro” instead. Incroyable!

In baseball, the bleachers are the uncovered seats out beyond the outfield, where sunscreen, binoculars, and cold beer are the order of the day. The term appears in 1889, when these seats were simple board benches that got bleached by the sun.

Southpaw is baseball slang for a left-hander. I like the etymological explanation that the word was coined when baseball diamonds typically had home plate oriented to the west. That meant a pitcher’s left hand (or paw) would be to the south when facing a batter. However, the term is found in earlier references from boxing. So much for pastoral roots.

Umpire is the odd-looking word for an official who arbitrates between two teams in a sporting match. It derives from the French nonper – non “not” + per “equal”. Umpires are not the equals of the players; they always have the last say.

When fans in the bleachers disagree with an umpire, they may call him another name: “bum” or “idiot” or something more colorful and fricative.

Which, on a sunny day at Fenway, is par for the course.

Game On: The Sport Of Naming Teams

The question at answers.com was logical enough: a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers wondered where all the lakes were in the City of Angels. In Minnesota, as it turns out. Before the Lakers came to Tinseltown, they were the Minneapolis Lakers. Makes sense. Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes. When the franchise headed west, it left the lakes behind, but not the name. And for more than fifty years, in the most densely populated urban area in the United States, basketball fans have flocked to see a team with an idyllic, outdoorsy moniker. Hollywood, land of make-believe.

Here in New England, our team names present no such hiccup. The Patriots and Revolution connect to our colonial past. The Celtics reflect Boston’s large Irish-American population. Red Sox became an official nickname in 1908, after the club adopted red as its color and featured a red stocking on the front of its players’ jerseys. The original owner of Boston’s professional hockey team wanted a nickname that suggested speed, agility, and cunning. Bruins delivered the hat trick. It also lent itself to brown and yellow uniforms, which just happened to be the colors of the owner’s grocery chain.

The Lakers are not alone in maintaining a nickname despite its disconnect to a new locale:

> The Baltimore Colts were named in honor of the region’s rich history in horse racing. Indianapolis, where the Colts moved, is famous for racing, too, but the focus is on horsepower, not thoroughbreds.

> British Columbia is home to a large grizzly bear population. Naming an NBA team the Vancouver Grizzlies made sense; keeping the name when the franchise moved to Memphis did not. Favorite son Elvis has left the arena, and there is no risk of a grizzly attack outside.

> The New Orleans Jazz pioneered the use of singular nouns in team names (the Miami Heat, Colorado Avalanche, Orlando Magic, etc., would follow). It’s one of my all-time favorites. But when the franchise moved to Utah, the name became oxymoronic. Utah Jazz? Imagine Thelonious Monk sitting in with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

At the college level, leave it to two New England athletic powerhouses – Berklee College of Music and Rhode Island School of Design – to give us inspired team names. Berklee’s hockey squad – the IceCats – reflects the school’s contemporary music pedigree. (According to berkleegroove.com, “contrary to popular belief, some musicians actually are capable of playing sports.”)

And then there’s RISD’s hockey team. The Nads may strike you as a curious name, until you cheer on the team at the top of your lungs:

GO NADS! GO NADS!

In the universe of team names, the Nads are in a league of their own.

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