How Many Grand Slams in a Grand Slam?
Posted by Neal on June 13, 2006
This was the headline in the sports section of the New York Times a few days ago, before Roger Federer lost the French Open to Rafael Nadal:
Federer, Eyeing 4th Grand Slam, Faces Nadal in Final
I could just imagine Dad reading the headline, and then saying to Mom, “No, Federer is not ‘eyeing a fourth Grand Slam’! To get a fourth Grand Slam, he’d have to have three Grand Slams already, and he doesn’t. He doesn’t even have one Grand Slam. The only tennis players ever to win even one Grand Slam were Don Budge, Maureen Connolly, Rod Laver, Margaret Smith Court, and Steffi Graf.”
Mom would probably nod and agree. To make sure she really did agree with him and wasn’t just faking it to avoid having to debate the point, Dad would continue:
“To win a Grand Slam, a tennis player has to win, in one calendar year, the U.S. Open, the French Open, the Australian Open, and Wimbledon. At least, that’s how it used to be. Later they changed it so that it was enough to hold all four titles at once, even if they weren’t all won in the same calendar year. Then they came up with the ‘career Grand Slam,’ so you don’t even have to hold all four titles at the same time. And now, lo and behold, you don’t even have to win all four titles. Just one of them is enough for you to be a Grand Slam winner. Incredible!”
This was more or less what Dad told me a few years ago when he’d read some story or heard some commentator talking about how many Grand Slams Pete Sampras had won. I’d never paid any attention to professional tennis, so it was the first time I learned any definition of a Grand Slam (aside from the kinds in baseball and at Denny’s), but it did sound like there was some serious title inflation going on.
So I put the question to a couple of fellow grad students who were
more of a more of some sportsfans to a greater degree than I was: Steve Hartman Keiser and Panos Pappas. They admitted that people did talk about tennis players “winning a Grand Slam” when they had won only one of the required tournaments, but it wasn’t a problem of title inflation. Rather, it was an “insidious ambiguity” of the kind you get when a compound noun loses its head.
Consider the compound noun Grand Slam tournament. There could conceivably be any number of relationships holding between the modifier noun Grand Slam and the head noun tournament. (See Heidi Harley’s recent post on interpreting compound nouns.) As it happens, the more conservative one would be the part-whole relationship: a Grand Slam tournament is a tournament that constitutes a part (one fourth) of a Grand Slam. But it could also be misconstrued as the general-specific (“isa”) relationship: a Grand Slam is a kind of tournament. And once it’s been analyzed that way, the path is cleared for the head noun tournament to be dropped.
By way of analogy, you’d never call a car door a car and expect to be understood, but if you’re talking about kinds of haircuts, it’s more natural to refer to, say, a mullet, than to redundantly say, “mullet haircut.” The ambiguity of Grand Slam “true Grand Slam” vs. Grand Slam “tournament in the set constituting a Grand Slam” is analogous to that of State of the Union “one of the fifty United States” vs. State of the Union “address to Congress regarding the current state of the Union” that I wrote about here.
After talking to Steve and Panos, I reported my findings back to Dad, and he understood them. Even so, I bet he’d've said something about the Times headline if he’d seen it. He’s never been one to let the existence of a logical explanation get in the way of a good rant.
Update: For more on the development of Grand Slam in bridge, baseball, and tennis, see this posting on Bob Kennedy’s much more sports-oriented linguistics blog.