Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Go… Bucks?

Posted by Neal on November 18, 2006

When I first moved to Ohio, I’d thought they were crazy about football at the University of Texas, but I soon revised my estimation. I went to some campus-area bars with some guys I’d met in my dorm and in each one they were playing the Ohio State fight song, and, for some reason they also were very fond of some song from the 60s called “Hang On, Sloopy.” My roommate had to educate me about OSU football, telling me about some guy that used to coach here named Woody Hayes (ah, he must be who they named Woody Hayes Drive after), about the fans (including my roommate) in Block O, and all about some big rivalry that OSU had with the University of Michigan.

Growing up here, Doug is getting a thorough Ohio acculturation, including OSU football appreciation. He and his mom sometimes watch the OSU game on TV, and I’ve even heard him say things like, “Third and TWELVE?! Oh, man!” He and she were watching the game one Saturday last month, while I looked on from the kitchen, where I was peeling apples for a pie. “Hey! What’s wrong with this picture?” my wife said at one point. Hey, that was nothing. Doug even went to a Buckeye football game a few weeks ago, not with me, who graduated from OSU, but with his mom! And his acculturation continues at school, where he’s soaking up the anti-Michigan spirit. Yesterday, the dress-code restriction on anything written on shirts was temporarily lifted, so that on the last day of “Michigan week,” kids could wear their Buckeye gear… or Michigan stuff, to be fair. A few kids did, but other, less confident ones (including at least one friend of Doug’s) pretend to be OSU fans among their classmates and root for Michigan in the privacy of their homes.

So here it is the day of the OSU-Michigan game, with the undefeated #1 and undefeated #2 teams in the nation (see, I know these things now!) facing each other in a few hours, and all week, I’ve been hearing “Go, Bucks!” even more than usual in Ohio in the fall. I was aware that Ohio was known as the Buckeye State before moving here, and I think I even knew that the OSU team was known as the Buckeyes. But even after living through 15 football seasons, the phrase Go, Bucks! is a little strange to me.

I learned that the buckeye was the nut from a tree that was common in Ohio, so named because it resembled the eye of a buck.


OK, so buckeye was created by compounding. So far, so good. And the football team (and other teams) from Ohio State University were called buckeyes because Ohio was the buckeye state. Fine. But when I take a compound word apart, it doesn’t have the meaning of the whole compound. I can’t call a doghouse a dog, or an apple pie an apple, or a TV dinner a TV. So when people refer to the Buckeye football team as the Bucks, I wonder why it doesn’t bother them that they’re making it sound like OSU’s mascot is a male deer instead of a nut that resembles the eye of a male deer.

On the other hand, State of the Union can be synonymous with State of the Union address; Grand Slam with Grand Slam tournament; and molest with sexually molest, so why am I complaining? Actually, though, I don’t think this is a case of one word in a compound absorbing the meaning of the entire compound. If it were, I think buck would refer to actual buckeye nuts, but I’ve never heard anyone call a buckeye nuts a buck. People make necklaces out of buckeyes to wear to the games and tailgate parties, but they’re called buckeye necklaces, not buck necklaces. I think buck meaning “member of an OSU sports team” is a case of the word being shortened (linguists refer to it as clipping) without regard to whether it’s a compound, acronym, or anything else. In other words, buckeye went on referring to buckeye nuts, while Buckeye formed its semi-independent meaning solidly associated with OSU sports teams before getting shortened to Buck. Etymology is not destiny, as they say.

4 Responses to “Go… Bucks?”

  1. Michael said

    Since you coyly elide your own leanings (though I must assume you like to see OSU win) I will offer my congratulations today to Doug.

    I will always be a Wolverine–and I will always remember that much of my pride in my alma mater comes from sharing in the tradition of fine competition and humility offered by the Buckeyes.

    Today was Doug’s day.


  2. Lonnie said

    Don’t forget that the UT slogan is “Hook ’em Horns”. Maybe the the neccessity of shortening the names of compound sports teams has more to do with the state of the fans (emotional and/or inebriated) than with a linguistic trend. I think that a single syllable is easier to remember and shout in the heat of the moment. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, their shortened nickname lends itself to a rude rhyme to be shouted by their opponents.

  3. Michael said

    In the dinner conversation that accompanied massive plate-loads of Thanksgiving food a discussion of the acceptable abbreviated form for “collard greens” arose. One gentleman who used to live in the south mentioned “collards” as an acceptable form. The gentleman who brought the dish said he had never heard that. “Oh so you can’t shorten it?” someone asked. “Oh yes you can. But we just call them “greens.”

    …for what it’s worth.

  4. […] wanted to do it, but I figure it’s a good thing to do just for socialization purposes, like learning to watch football. I didn’t figure out until my first year in high school that the reason I’d come to […]

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