Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Soccer Cleats and the Dual Number

Posted by Neal on September 10, 2008

After I got a D in tennis during my freshman year in high school, I decided I’d take the opportunity to switch to the track team for the second semester. About the only thing I was good at in tennis was running the warm-up lap at the beginning of the class. I’d usually come in first or second, so I figured maybe track would be a better fit. Unfortunately, I found myself several levels above my level of incompetence after making the switch. Thank goodness for Billy Neimeier — if it hadn’t been for him, I’d have always been last.

One thing I learned during my time on the track team was what a cleat was, when I’d see the sprinters screwing them onto the bottoms of their special shoes. Somewhere along the way I learned that various other kinds of athletic shoes could also have cleats, and that, in a good example of metonymy (more specifically, synecdoche), these shoes are typically referred to simply as cleats. This synecdoche is the first step in a dangerous direction, and by dangerous, I mean “personally annoying”.

First, you’ll agree that cleats denotes some number of cleats other than one. Second, note that when an athlete puts on their cleats, they’re putting on two objects. Finally, let us reaffirm that two is a number other than one. Can you see where this is going?

Doug has been playing soccer for more than four years now during the spring and fall, and I have to listen to him say things like…

I can’t find one of my soccer cleats!
When I dove for the ball, he accidentally kicked me with his cleat.
Dad, could you help me untie this cleat?

He’s not the only one. I hear his soccer-playing friends saying the same kind of thing, and every time, I want to blurt out, “A cleat is not a shoe! A cleat is one of those pointy things on the bottom of the shoe!” I don’t, though. By now I know that when I hear developments like this, they’ve probably been going on for years already, and it’s too late to do anything. And sure enough, although I don’t see this particular meaning for cleat in the OED, it’s evidently common enough to have made it into my Random House Webster’s unabridged dictionary (published in 2001), as the fifth definition. It’s also pretty much standard in most of the online catalog descriptions I see. Still, it’s hard to accept that for some people, the earlier meaning of cleat is so far from their experience that they’ll write slap-yourself-on-the-forehead ignorant stuff like this:

A cleat is a type of shoe designed especially for sports played on grass or dirt, such as soccer. …[T]he shoes generally have large studs on the bottom to assist in gripping the surface, preventing sliding and assisting in rapid changes of direction. The stud itself is often called a cleat. (link)

“The stud itself is often called a cleat”? Yes, that’s because cleat is the name for those stud thingies!

You know, all of this confusion could have been avoided, if only English had a dual number. We have the singular cleat, and we have the plural cleats for numbers other than one, but some languages have a form just for pairs of things. For example, Sanskrit had a dual number. Let me just flip to the back of my copy of Teach Yourself Sanskrit … OK, here we go. The singular form suhrdam (accusative case) means “friend”. The plural form suhrdas means “friends”, provided you’re talking about more than two of them. The dual form suhrdau means “(two) friends”. If we had a dual number in English, then speakers would know that the plural form cleats was referring to more than two of something, and therefore could not be referring to the two shoes themselves.

Unless we’re talking about a player with three legs or something, but that’s rare enough that I don’t think people would be confused.

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12 Responses to “Soccer Cleats and the Dual Number”

  1. Ran said

    > If we had a dual number in English, then speakers would know that the plural form cleats was referring to more than two of something, and therefore could not be referring to the two shoes themselves.

    I fear you might have too much faith in the power of the dual–plural distinction. Hebrew has a dual, but only on nouns (agreeing adjectives and verbs use the plural), and as far as that goes, there are roughly three types of nouns:

    1. For the vast majority, the dual is no longer used outside of poetry/archaisms/etc.
    2. For many, the dual is totally alive and well; the only time you’d use the plural for two is if you’re explicitly stating the number (e.g., “pa’amayim” = “sh’tei p’amim”, i.e. “times-dual” = “two-feminine times-plural“).
    3. For many, the dual has totally supplanted the plural, and is used even for more than two.

    I believe that in most forms of Arabic, the situation is similar, except with more blurriness between types 1 and 2; depending on the noun and on the register, use of the dual may be more or less likely. (I think written Modern Standard Arabic preserves the dual much more than most of the normal forms, though.)

    Granted, some languages have much more of a dual–plural distinction than Arabic and Hebrew, but I’m not sure if there are any where it’s a totally hard-and-fast rule. And that’s just in synchronic terms; in diachronic terms, the tendency throughout the Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic languages has definitely been to lose the distinction. (Dunno about other language families, though.)

  2. Viola said

    So..Holt & Gregg got a lesson on cleats. They were highly impressed with the three-legged girl with the extra hand and ear and—“Mom, is that a wig on that girl? Why is her hair lighter on the back?” My response,”Now boys, the hair is not so unusual as the extra ear, hand, and leg. Let’s concentrate on what’s important here. What would you call that extra soccer shoe on that girl’s extra leg?” Unanimously, “A cleat!” *heavy sigh from mom*

  3. Kip said

    I’ll admit I was ignorant of the original meaning of “cleat.” If asked, I would have probably given a definition similar to the “slap-yourself-on-the-forehead ignorant” one, except without that last sentence. Probably has to do with the fact that I don’t care for sports and the last time I wore cleats was in 8th grade (1996ish). Also, the cleats that most of us encounter nowadays are just shoes with cleats permanently affixed to the bottom of them, so we don’t think about cleats being something that can be affixed/removed from some shoes.

  4. Ellen said

    You know, I’ve never used the word “cleat.” When we wore cleats for flag football, I wore cleats, but removed them from my feet one shoe at a time. And for track I don’t think we ever called them cleats. We called them spikes. The cleats that were screwed in were razor sharp little suckers and it really hurt if you ever “got spiked.” And then, too, I’m not sure if I ever said I was removing a spike unless I was unscrewing a spike from the bottom of the shoes. I said track shoe, which is what Dad said, too, I think, since he liked to say that people looked like their faces had caught on fire and been beaten out with a track shoe. Is it an age thing maybe?

  5. Viola said

    You know, I wasn’t gonna say this, but I cannot stand the word “cleats” because it reminds me of spikes, and that reminds me of pain. I prefer soccer shoes, or track shoes, but not cleats. It may or may not be an age thing. It could just be a matter of aversion to the word!

    Does anyone else think the word “cleats” sounds painfully cursed?

  6. dgm said

    When I ran track in high school, the spiky things we screwed in (former sprinter here) were cleats, but I’m pretty sure we also referred to the shoes themselves as “cleats.” However, if we spoke of only one, it was “one of my cleats” rather than “my cleat.”

    Can you explain why those things we cut with are called “a scissors”? This makes my ears bleed; it just ain’t right.

    And finally, that picture of the kid with three legs? His parents must have been astonished when they discovered he had grown another foot!

  7. David W. Green said

    Speaking of singulars and plurals:

    > Second, note that when an athlete puts on their cleats, they’re putting on two objects.

    Do you normally use ‘their’ in the singular? I hadn’t noticed. But I applaud you for it, because, really, I think this needs to be embraced wholeheartedly as both a singular and plural pronoun. I don’t want to get into a whole epicene argument though. 😉

  8. Neal said

    Thanks for the native-speaker data from a language with dual number, and for the crosslinguistic insight.

    Lots of people don’t like a scissors, and therefore use the plural-to-singular adaptor pair of. It takes a certain stubborness, I think, to say “a scissors” and “the scissors is”, and even more so for “a scissors is”. Thank goodness that the is neutral between singular or plural, or this problem would come up even more. As for why this kind of noun (known as pluralia tantum) develops, I don’t know. Do any of you readers?

    Yes, I do, but only when the antecedent is of unknown gender. Actually, even this rule isn’t quite accurate, as a LL post observed a few years ago. I wouldn’t be comfortable saying, “Chris left their glasses here,” even if I didn’t know whether Chris was a Christine or a Christopher.

  9. Tripod girl playing football 🙂

  10. Come on guys, give him a break. He is making a lot of sense.

  11. hiba said

    what a really lie and fake since these are twoooo girls beside each other daaaaaaaaaaa
    what a big fakke

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