Phil Taylor has a column in the new Sports Illustrated about how sports terminology has worked its way into everyday conversations, whether it's politics or the law. Taylor writes, "We live in a world of knockout blows and three-strike laws. We think we're batting 1.000 at the office until the boss moves the goalposts on us by asking us to pinch-hit for a coworker, putting us behind the 8 ball."
There probably is sports overload in all aspects of life. But at least most of the phrases actually make sense today. My friend John worked with me in Worthington. He wasn't in the sports department but proofread our pages. He was a fan of the English language, but not sports. John loathed sports terms. Reading 75 inches of basketball roundups on a Thursday night tortured him. In particular, the word caroms tormented young John. You know, caroms. Rebounds. As in, "Ben Johnson scored 20 points and grabbed 10 caroms to lead Westville High to a 76-63 victory..." John would strike it out or put a question mark next to a carom and I'd ignore it, gently explaining that in the sports department, we use words that sometimes sound ridiculous. We use them because...well, just because we've always used them, dating back to when everyone smoked in the newsroom.
Countless words have fallen out of favor in sports departments over the past few decades but some still remain. I've used some of them and mocked others. Some favorites?
Harriers, cagers, gridders, thinclads, meshed, roundballers, aerial, keglers, stanzas, netters, second sackers. Add your own.
Anyone who's read a sports section - especially anytime before, say, 1980 - recognizes all of those terms. Some are still used today while others only make rare appearances. Thinclads remains a popular way to describe track and field athletes, who are often...thinly clad. That was always an odd one; it'd be like if basketball players had been described as short-shorts. Or calling football players tightpants. Cross country runners are harriers. Long ago, a hurdler could be labeled a timber topper. Most of these words fit in back when men wore suits and hats to baseball games and everything on television was broadcast in black and white.
Football players go by gridders, of course, because they play on the gridiron. Football fields used to look more like checkerboards, the patterns resembling a grid. A running back will "tote" the "pigskin" while his quarterback - or signal caller - directs the aerial attack.
Cagers is for basketball players. The game used to have a bit more violence. Teams played on tiny courts in small gymnasiums. A team in Trenton, N.J., started playing inside a wire cage to separate the action from the unruly crowds. This set up a scene that most people associate with a grudge match between Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Savage, a steel cage battle. This was back in the 1920s, yet the phrase cagers remained popular long after the wiring disappeared, the same way gridiron remained a viable word a century after it no longer accurately described the field. Thankfully David Stern did not bring this back after the brawl in the Palace.
It's from playing inside the cage that the word meshed probably made its way into the vocabulary of sportswriters, though it still seems like a strange way to describe scoring. I meshed 20 points at Old Man Basketball on Wednesday night, give or take.
I can say with some pride that I never actually used the word keglers to describe a bowler when I wrote for newspapers (yes, we covered bowling). The only reason I know the term is because we had to take a quiz during the bowling unit of our phy ed classes in high school, and part of it involved being able to define kegler (we also had to accurately score games by adding up a mock card. This was the only math I was any good at after ninth grade). Kegler comes from a German word and has no relation to the amount of alcohol consumed by an average bowler on a Tuesday night at the alleys.
Writers have used stanzas to describe innings and occasionally a quarter in basketball. It was especially useful to break up the monotony of the word inning. The Twins scored a run in the extra stanza on Friday night to defeat the Chicago White Sox, or, as some call them, the Pale Hose. Baseball games used to be tilts, though not so much today.
Break out netters during tennis roundups or a volleyball recap. Basically, anyone playing a sport involving a net, including hoops, can be called a netter. Thankfully I never saw anyone type that a group of netters netted a victory. A cager could rip the nets and mesh 30 points.
An uncle of mine occasionally poked fun at the ways sportswriters had to constantly come up with new ways to describe the same action. How many different ways can you say one team beat another? How many ways can you say someone scored 20 points? It turns out, there are endless ways. You just have to go back to the early 20th century to find some of the terms.