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.