Major League Team Names

One area that the Wordorigins.org web site gives short shrift is onomastics, or the study of names and proper nouns. Given this month’s baseball theme, an exploration of major league team names is in order. The dates listed are the dates the team name came into use, not the date the modern organization was founded.

Oakland Athletics (1860). This is probably the oldest baseball team name still in use, dating to 1860 when an amateur Philadelphia team dubbed themselves the Athletics. The modern American League team played in Philadelphia (1901-54) and Kansas City (1954-67) before landing in Oakland in 1968. Since arriving in Oakland, the name has alternated back and forth between Athletics and A’s, depending on the whim of the moment.

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Prescriptivist’s Corner: Foreign Plurals

English borrows words like no other language. All languages borrow words from others, but English is as close to a polyglot as any major language can be. While this borrowing adds to the richness and power of the language, it does present certain grammatical problems.

One of these problems is how to form plurals of borrowed words. Do you use the standard English plural of -s/-es? Or do you use the foreign plural?

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Words On The Web: www.sportscliche.com

Crash Davis: “It’s time to work on your interviews.”
Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh: “My interviews? What do I gotta do?”
Davis: “You’re gonna have to learn your clichés. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends. Write this down: ‘We gotta play it one day at a time.’”
LaLoosh: “Got to play… it’s pretty boring.”
Davis: “’Course it’s boring, that’s the point. Write it down.”
—Bull Durham, 1988

The sports cliché has been around as long as there have been sportswriters. Ever since Wee Willie Keeler told a reporter that the secret to batting success was to hit ‘em where they ain’t, the cliché has been unbreakably linked to sports. From poetry in motion to he tattooed that one, sports clichés abound in American discourse.

www.sportscliche.com records and archives these clichés. The site defines a sports cliché as “an expression that has been used in and around sports with sufficient frequency over a protracted period such that it is ‘tired’ at best and meaningless at worst.” The site also concludes “that nothing of any importance has ever been said in a halftime analysis.”

The site is basically a series of lists, categorized by sport (baseball, football), location (winner’s locker room, loser’s locker room), and special categories (clichés devoted to John Elway). There’s even a page on the music that is played too often in stadiums and ballparks. Features include search function and quiz.

The site is pretty Spartan though. It could use some sprucing up, like making the quiz interactive. But it serves the basic function of identifying these phrases for what they are.

Book Review: Dickson’s New Baseball Dictionary

Few pastimes have contributed as much to the language as baseball. All sports have their own jargon and occasionally some of those jargon words make their way into general speech. But baseball is different in the sheer number or words and phrases that it has contributed to the language.

Dickson’s revised version of his baseball dictionary contains over 7,000 entries, from A (as in Class A ball) to zurdo (Spanish for lefty). Most jargon dictionaries simply record the definitions of terms. Dickson goes well beyond this. He identifies archaic and obsolete terms, cross-references related terms, includes etymologies, and for many terms gives the first known use, notes on usage, and quotations of actual use.

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April Fool

APRIL FOOL. Anyone imposed on, or sent on a bootless errand, on the first of April; on which day it is the custom among the lower people, children, and servants, by dropping empty papers, carefully doubled up, sending persons on absurd messages, and such like contrivances, to impose on every one they can and then to salute them with the title of April Fool.”
—Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1796

April first is not just Major League Baseball’s opening day, it is also April Fool’s Day. On this day, it is tradition to play practical jokes on others.

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Word Of The Month: Baseball

In honor of the return of the boys of summer, the word of the month for April is:

Baseball n.; a game between two teams of nine players each, under the direction of a manager, played on an enclosed field in accordance with the Official Baseball Rules, under jurisdiction of one or more umpires. Originally a name for the British game of rounders, the term dates to at least 1744 when John Newberry included a poem about the game in a children’s book. The name was applied to the modern game in 1845, when Alexander Cartwright first codified the rules of the game and formed the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. (Contrary to myth, Abner Doubleday had nothing to do with the game.)

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Great Vowel Shift

Perhaps the biggest single change in English pronunciation happened during the transition from Middle English to Modern English. Linguists call this the Great Vowel Shift. The shift began c. 1300 and continued through c. 1700, with the majority of the change occurring in the 15th and 16th centuries. So the language of Chaucer is largely pre-shift and the language of Shakespeare is largely post-shift, although the changes were underway before Chaucer was born and continued on after Shakespeare had died.

During the Great Vowel Shift, English speakers changed the way they pronounced long vowels. Before the shift, English vowels were pronounced in much the same way that they are spoken in modern continental European languages. After the shift, they had achieved their modern phonological values.

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Prescriptivist’s Corner: Pleading Your Case

To plead was originally in the class of verbs, along with read, speed, lead, and feed, that took an irregular past tense and past participle, pled. The irregular form has a history dating back to the 16th century. Competing with this past tense was the regular form pleaded, as in “he pleaded not guilty.” The regular form won out in England, and pled retreated to Scotland where it became the standard past tense in Scottish law. It then made its way to America, probably through Scottish immigration, where it coexists with pleaded.

Beginning in the late-19th century, American grammarians started attacking the irregular form, pled, presumably because it was not in use in England. They were largely successful in legal and journalistic circles and pleaded is the dominant form in America, but pled continues to survive in general US usage and lately is making inroads into the courts and newspapers.

While it’s not strictly improper, pled is rarely used by lawyers and journalists. Using pled in one’s own speech is an indicator that one is not well versed in the law. As such, it should be avoided. (Others would argue the opposite—that being noticed as not being a lawyer would be a good thing.)

A bigger problem is the preposition that follows the plea. One pleads to a charge. “He pleaded not guilty to murder” is correct. “He pleaded not guilty of murder” is not. Of should not be used with the verb plead, although “he is not guilty of murder” is grammatically correct.

And to confuse things further, technically one cannot plead innocence. In law, one pleads either guilty or not guilty. This, however, is a distinction that is best left to the lawyers. Plead innocent is sometimes used for fear the not in not guilty might be dropped accidentally. So the rule of thumb is when the judge asks for your plea, you say either “guilty” or “not guilty.” At other times you can say plead innocent to avoid any misunderstanding.

And by the definition of plea, which means to make one’s case, one cannot actually plead guilty. “Guilty” isn’t a plea; it’s a confession. Blackstone, in his 1769 Commentaries on the Laws of England never uses the phrase plead guilty. But this last is a lost cause. No one seriously makes this distinction anymore.

Words On The Web: www.oed.com

What better site to start a feature on language sites on the web than with www.oed.com. The Oxford English Dictionary is, without question, the greatest English language resource either online or off.

The OED provides definitions for over half a million words. It includes 2.5 million quotations demonstrating word usage and historical examples of changes in spelling and form. The OED is the fundamental resource for anyone serious about words and language.

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Book Review: Safire’s Let A Simile Be Your Umbrella

William Safire is perhaps the most widely read commentator on the English language writing today. His weekly On Language column appears in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. Safire’s column runs the gamut of language issues, covering etymology, usage, and grammar. It focuses on words and phrases that are in vogue or recently used by key political and media figures.

Let a Simile Be Your Umbrella is the 12th in the series of compilations of Safire’s column. Safire has been writing the On Language column since 1979 and turning out these compilation volumes on the average of once every two years since then.

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