Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

All or Nothing On the Field

Posted by Neal on November 13, 2016

Last Wednesday, as I watched Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, she told her campaign workers:

You left it all on the field, every single one of you.

On the other hand, the week before, Cleveland Indians coach Terry Francona said this about their historic World Series run that ended in a loss with game seven:

To be associated with those players in that clubhouse, it is an honor and I just told them that it’s going to hurt. It hurts because we care. But they need to walk with their heads held high because they left nothing on the field. That’s all the things we ever ask them to do. They tried until there was nothing left.

So which is it? Do you leave everything on the field, or nothing on the field? The expression I’m used to is Leave everything on the field or Leave it all on the field. And in fact, this is the original phrasing. In a thread on the American Dialect Society email list, Ben Zimmer linked us to this post by etymologist Barry Popik, who wrote:

To “leave everything on the court/ice/field” is to give total effort, to the point of exhaustion. Nothing is held in reserve for a future contest.

“It was evident the Giants had left it all on the field” was cited in print in 1961.

“After the game, if you can say that you left everything on the field and if you had it to do over again tomorrow, you couldn’t have done it any better—then and only then is there no disgrace in losing,” a high school football coach said in 1966.

“Our kids gave everything they had. They didn’t leave a thing off the field, they left it all on the field,” a college football coach said in 1969. The now-common expression is not known to have any particular author.

The first example of leave nothing on the field that I’ve been able to find is from November 10, 2000:

South River left nothing on the field in final loss

Hits are kind of scarce after that, but pick up again from 2007 onwards. I wondered if it might have been spread by a book by Tim Irwin called Run with the Bulls without Getting Trampled, published in 2006, which had this passage:

…the head coach of the opposing team walked across the field directly toward us. He turned to me and said, “Sir, may I speak with your son?”

I moved away as he put his hands on my son’s shoulders and looked directly into his reddened eyes. Barely audible to me, I heard the coach pay this young player the supreme compliment. “Son, tonight you left nothing on the field. You gave it your all, and it was an honor to play against you.”

However, I think the increase in nothing-variants probably had more to do with a 2007 Nike TV commercial called “Leave Nothing”, brought to my attention by ADS-L contributor Wilson Gray:

So how did we get from leaving everything on the field to leaving nothing, without even a stop at 75%, or 33%? My suspicion is that it’s an idiom blend between leave everything on the field and hold nothing back, or maybe leave nothing in the locker room, which I’ve found as early as 2005. Alternatively, it could be some confusion with the business expression leave money on the table, which you don’t want to do. That seems to be this blogger’s understanding, except that he thinks leave money on the table is related to poker.

How can this expression and its complete opposite both express the same idea? As far as my family members are concerned, they could care less.

Posted in Politics, Sports, Syntactic blending | 9 Comments »

Nae Nae, Nini, No-No, Noo-Noo

Posted by Neal on March 22, 2014

Soon after Mercer College’s amazing upset of Duke University in the NCAA March Madness tournament, both Slate and the New York Times published articles about a dance that the Bears’ team member Kevin Canevari was doing on live national TV while his teammates cheered. The dance, Slate explained, was

the Nae Nae, a dance created by Atlanta fivesome We Are Toonz. As Billboard pointed out a couple of months ago, it’s loosely inspired by the character Sheneneh, played in drag by Martin Lawrence on his popular eponymous sitcom from the ’90s.

When I read that, my first reaction was, “Aha! Another entry!”

A few weeks ago, Mignon Fogarty ran a guest script that I wrote for her Grammar Girl podcast, on the history of “Little Bunny Foo Foo”. That was an excerpt from my book-in-progress, whose working title is The Babbler’s Lexicon, a phonetically organized book of word histories, with words having one thing in common: That they consist of a reduplicated consonant-vowel (CV) syllable. I got the idea when I heard Grant Barrett and Martha Barnett discussing the word juju on an episode of A Way with Words, and got to wondering how many words in English consisted of a single reduplicated syllable.

I decided to narrow the search to reduplicated CV syllables containing any of the vowels /a, e, i, o, u/, the vowels in bot, bait, beat, boat, and boot. The crossproduct of English consonants that can begin a syllable and {a,e,i,o,u} gave me 115 possible words, which I’ve listed at the bottom of the post.

In researching these possible words, I’ve learned that almost any of them can be used as a nickname, especially those that sound like the names of letters, because they can be people’s initials: J.J., C.C., DeeDee, etc. Also, a surprising number of them have also been used as euphemisms for sexual anatomy. (Given the way I organized my list phonetically, I considered calling the book From Papa to Hoo Hoo, but realized that just wouldn’t do.) Anyway, the /n/ series consists of /nana, nene, nini, nono, nunu/. Here are the entries I have at present:

/nana/: Nothing. I’m not including single words, such as nah, that are said twice for emphasis.

nene /ˈneˌne/, n: The endangered goose Branta sandvicensis that is the state bird of Hawaii. The name was borrowed from Hawaiian in the early 20th century.

Photo by USFWS, licensed by Creative Commons

Photo by USFWS, licensed by Creative Commons

Nae Nae /ˈneˌne/, n: See above.

nini /ˈniˌni/, Spanish slang, n: A young person who just wants to party and have a good time. According to an entry on Urban Dictionary, this comes from the Spanish ni estudia ni trabaja (“neither studies nor works”). This definition is backed up by the existence of “The Nini Anthem”:

no-no /ˈnoˌno/, n, adj: Something forbidden. The OED has this from 1942, and gives an interesting usage note: It’s usually with the indefinite article. That is, you can say something is a no-no, but even after that, you won’t refer to it as this no-no or the no-no. And I mean it!

Noo-noo /ˈnuˌnu/, n, adj: The animate vacuum-cleaner creature on the late 1990s BBC children’s TV show Teletubbies. Clever Noo-noo!

If you have other N words that belong in this set, leave a comment. I have just learned, for example, that there is a hair-removal device called the No-No, and that in South African English, nunu refers to a big, creepy insect. Other words that belong in The Babbler’s Lexicon at large are welcome, too.


/p/ /f/ /t/ /z/ /ʒ/ /k/
/b/ /v/ /d/ /ɹ/ /ʧ/ /g/
/m/ /θ/ /n/ /l/ /ʤ/ /h/
/w/ /ð/ /s/ /ʃ/ /j/

Created with the HTML Table Generator

Posted in Music, Phonetics and phonology, Pop culture, Sports | 7 Comments »

Peyton Manning and the Missing T Formation

Posted by Neal on February 6, 2010

Pey(t)on Manning

Thanks to my wife and Doug’s watching of the NFL playoffs, it’s come to my attention that the Super Bowl is this weekend; that one of the teams playing is the Indianapolis Colts; and that the Colts’ quarterback is one Peyton Manning. As I listened to TV commentators talk about Peyton Manning, I got to thinking about a local Utah newscast that James D. Smith brought to the attention of the American Dialect Society listserv back in November. The story was about younger speakers there “dropping their T’s”. It turned out they were talking about the pronunciation of words like mountain and Layton (a city in Utah). The transcript wrote the pronunciations as “mow-en” and “Lay-en”, and when I first read it, I wondered what the big deal was.

Among linguists, it’s well-known that in some varieties of American English, when you have a stressed syllable ending in a voiceless stop (such as /t/), a glottal stop [ʔ] is inserted before it. For example, here’s a spectrogram of me saying the word pate. (Click on it to make it bigger. I’ve also linked to a sound file — since I can’t embed sounds in the free version of WordPress — that you might want to open in a new tab or window.) The dark area labeled “ej” is the vowel; the vertical stripes correspond to the opening and closing of the vocal folds. As they approach he orange-highlighted area, they get farther and farther apart, as the vocal folds tense up and ultimately close. This is the glottal stop, labeled with a question mark because I couldn’t put the IPA symbol into the graphic. At some point during this 90 milliseconds of relative silence, I put my tongue tip into position for the [t], but that doesn’t show up: If the airstream is blocked at the vocal folds, another blockage downstream doesn’t make a difference. After the end of the orange-highlighted segment, you see a brief burst of sound, when I release the /t/.

My normal pronunciation of pate

(Sound file: My normal pronunciation of pate)

How do I know that orange segment really had a glottal stop in it, and wasn’t just all [t]? Here’s another spectrogram, of me saying pate again, this time making sure to keep my vocal folds open. This time, the orange segment containing the [t] is about 50 milliseconds long, which is average for American English. In the earlier pronunciation, the orange segment is about twice as long.

My unglottalized pronunciation of pate

(Sound file: My unglottalized pronunciation of pate)

But what does all that have to do with a “missing T”? The next well-known phonological phenomenon is that when you have a stressed vowel followed by a [t] or [d], and the next syllable ends in [n] (as in Peyton and Madden), it’s common for the vowel between the [t] and the [n] to drop out, and for the [n] in essence to act as the vowel. (In phonetic terms, it becomes syllabic.) It’s a labor-saving technique: Instead of putting the tongue tip behind the teeth to make the [t] or [d], then dropping it to let the vowel pass through, and then putting it back up there to make the [n]; you just put it up there and leave it.

Again, though, what does this have to do with a missing T? With the insertion of a glottal stop, and the [n] turning syllabic, we end up with the sequence [ʔtn] at the end of the word. In this situation, the [t] can optionally drop out, leaving just [ʔn]. It’s not surprising that this might happen. To see why, I’ll walk through what has to happen in order to pronounce [ʔtn]:

  1. For the glottal stop, the vocal folds close tight, cutting off the airflow to the mouth. (Remember the first pate spectrogram?)
  2. To make the [t], the tongue tip has to contact the palate right behind the teeth. Also the vocal folds have to stop vibrating, but since they’ve shut tight to make the [ʔ], this is already taken care of.
  3. For the [n], the tongue tip is already where it needs to be. Two other things have to happen simultaneously. One is that the uvula, which has been parked up against the back wall of the mouth, has to lower, opening up the passage to the nose. The other is that the vocal folds have to start vibrating again.

If the silence of the glottal stop makes it hard to know when the tongue tip gets into position to make a [t] (as it did with the pate example), then who would ever know if it never showed up at all until it was time to make the [n]? All it would take would be for it to arrive a few milliseconds too late, and you’d end up with just [ʔn]. In fact, I still can’t tell for sure whether I pronounce Peyton as [pʰejʔtn] or [pʰejʔn]. I’ve put a spectrogram of me saying Peyton below, and the glottal stop, conveniently highlighted in orange again, is similar to the one in my pronunciation of pate: about 80 milliseconds of silence. You can also see that there’s no vowel between the [ʔ] and the [n]. The voicing stripes are there, and so are the dark horizontal bands (known as formants) but much fainter than they would be for a vowel. This is characteristic of a nasal consonant.

My ordinary pronunciation of Peyton

(Sound file: My normal pronunciation of Peyton)

Maybe there’s also a [t] in there; maybe there’s not. But even if a listener can definitely tell that there’s no [t], this is such a common feature of American English that I couldn’t understand why someone would be complaining about it all of a sudden now, and for just this one population of speakers. I mean, it’s not bad English to pronounce Peyton as [pʰejtʰən], but it sounds a bit stilted and artificial, doesn’t it? Below is a spectrogram of this careful pronunciation of Peyton, and the link to the sound file. There’s no glottal stop here, just a 45-millisecond closure for the [t], followed by a slightly longer interval of voicelessness (noted as [h]), then a very short but visible and audible vowel before the [n].

My careful pronunciation of Peyton

(Sound file: My careful pronunciation of Peyton)

So I finally got around to watching the news video, and when I did, I realized that people weren’t complaining about a glottalized-T-and-syllabic-N pronunciation; they were complaining about something that really was strange. There is indeed a glottal stop, and that’s not the strange part. And the actual [t] is missing; that’s not the weird part, either. The weird part is that the [n] doesn’t turn syllabic: The vowel before it stays! That is, they would pronounce Peyton not as [pʰejtʰən] or [pʰejʔtn] or [pʰejʔn], but as [pʰejʔən]. The spectrogram and sound file of me giving the “Utahan” pronunciation of Peyton are below. The glottal stop is a little on the short side, only about 60 milliseconds, but still a bit longer than my usual [t] closure. (Besides, I promise you, the tip of my tongue never touched the roof of my mouth until I said the [n]!) After it there is an unmistakable vowel, followed by the [n].

My weird pronunciation of Peyton

(Sound file: My weird pronunciation of Peyton)

To me, this pronunciation is nuts! I first heard it on Dora the Explorer, when Dora was encouraging her audience to “push the buh-un”! This must have been near ten years ago, because it’s been a long time since Doug or Adam has watched Dora. Her pronunciation annoyed me, because the only reasons for the glottal stop to be there is if you’re going to say the [t], or if you’re going to do the [ʔtn]-reduction thing we talked about above.

Now as a linguist, I know this position is untenable. There are countless cases of some phonetic environment triggering a sound change, and then disappearing, like an icicle used as a murder weapon, leaving the sound change it caused as a puzzle for historical linguists to figure out. So why should this one be so weird? It shouldn’t, but speaking as an everyday user of English, I can tell you that it is, and I can totally understand the gut reaction of people who complain about it. I their real complaint is much like mine, but without the phonetic knowledge to put their finger on what’s going on, they seize upon the “missing T” — the [t] whose absence is hardly noticeable when an [n] comes immediately after, but which glares out when what remains is a glottal stop right next to a vowel.

So what about mountain, which I’ve ignored after mentioning it in the first paragraph? That’ll have to come in another post, along with names like Horton, Clinton, and Thornton (but not Easton, Ashton, Piketon, or Clapton). In the meantime, if you find yourself having to watch the Super Bowl and wondering how to stay entertained, maybe you could listen for glottal stops and missing T’s when the commentators Peyton Manning’s name!

Posted in Glottal stops, Phonetics and phonology, Sports | 26 Comments »

Mavrelous Favre

Posted by Neal on August 5, 2008

I’ve been learning some interesting things about Brett Favre during the past week or two. For example, I learned that there’s a guy named Brett Favre. I also learned that he is (or has been) a quarterback for Green Bay Packers since 1992. I’ve learned that there are conflicting statements of why (or even whether) he is retiring from football, the latest being that he’s not. And I’ve learned that his name is not pronounced [feIvr̩ ], i.e. like favor, nor [favr̩ ] (which would rhyme with bother if you replaced the th with a v), nor even [favrə], with a little “uh” sound on the end. It is, in fact, pronounced [farv], rhyming with Harv, Marv, and starve.

It’s tricky for English speakers to figure out what to do with -re at the end of French loan words. I’ve heard them pronounced as syllabic [r], as in cadre (rhyming with otter); pronounced as [rə], as in Sartre, the two-syllable pronunciation of genre, or the three-syllable pronunciation of macabre; and simply dropped, as in the one-syllable pronunciation of genre and the [məkab] pronunciation of macabre. But with the [r] and preceding consonant metathesized? That was a new one to me.

Or so I thought at first. Then I remembered hors d’oeuvre, which I, like everyone else I knew, pronounced as [ɔrdr̩vz] “or-durves” — until I took French in high school, and learned that ordurves, which I’d heard pronounced but never seen spelled, and hors d’oeuvres, which I’d seen spelled but never heard pronounced, were one and the same. (Kind of like when I learned that a rendezzvuss and a rendezvous were the same thing, or that Tuckson and Tucson were the same place.) Since then, I’ve never been able to bring myself to say the word. I can no longer pronounce it [ɔrdr̩vz], but don’t wish to put up with the questioning looks, chuckles, or rolled eyes if I pronounce it [ɔrdʎvrəz]. Until horse doovers becomes standard, I’ll just have to make do with appetizers.

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Posted in Metathesis, Sports | 19 Comments »

They Always Forget the Winner’s Name

Posted by Neal on July 17, 2008

I read this headline on the front page of the sports section yesterday:

People always seem to forget Home Run Derby winner’s name

I had never heard of the Home Run Derby, but it sounded like some kind of baseball-related annual event. And, apparently, year after year people had trouble remembering the name of whoever won it. A bit strange, I thought. Maybe it was one of those pieces of baseball lore involving a curse, like the Curse of the Bambino, or the Cubs’ Billy Goat Curse. I was curious, so I started reading the story. It began:

Justin Morneau received 70 text messages after winning Monday’s All-Star Home Run Derby, he said, with many making reference to the trophy presentation, when the event’s sponsor referred to him as “Jason.”

“It happens a lot,” Morneau said Tuesday, with a smile and a shrug. “People call me Jason all the time.” (link)

So it wasn’t that people always forgot the name of the Home Run Derby winner; they always (or often, anyway) forgot the name of Justin Morneau, who happened to be this year’s winner. Yes, I’d been caught by the old de dicto / de re ambiguity.

De dicto means “of what is said”, which is the interpretation I’d given the headline: They said Home Run Derby winner, so I thought they had in mind that particular role, regardless of who was filling it. De re means “of the thing”, or in this case, the actual person, Justin Morneau. This, of course, was the intended interpretation.

De dicto / de re is a particular kind of scope ambiguity, involving an element that makes reference to different times (or even different possible worlds), and a quantifier. In this case, it’s the always that makes reference to different times. To know whether something is always true, you need to know if it’s true at all particular times under consideration. The quantifier here is the, which combines with Home Run Derby winner to identify the sole individual who fits that description (assuming that we’re talking about this year).

When the Home Run Derby winner is taken to have wide scope over the always, we get the intended de re reading:

There exists a unique individual X, such that:

  1. X won the Home Run Derby
  2. for all relevant times T, at time T people forget X’s name.

On the other hand, when always is taken to have wide scope over the Home Run Derby winner, we get the strange de dicto reading:

For all relevant times T, there exists a unique individual X, such that:

  1. X wins the Home Run Derby at time T
  2. people forget X’s name at time T.

Actually, there’s one more circumstance that made this ambiguity possible. If the headline had said

People always seem to forget Justin Morneau’s name

there would have been no ambiguity, since no matter what time you’re talking about, Justin Morneau refers to the same individual. In semantic terms, it’s a rigid designator. In contrast, the non-rigid designator the Home Run Derby winner, like Speaker of the House, the Tomato Queen, and the dread pirate Roberts, refers to different individuals at different times.

Of course, when I say Justin Morneau refers to the same individual at any given time, I’m ignoring details like what it refers to during times preceding Morneau’s birth. Likewise for interpreting sentences such as I dreamed Justin Morneau had never been born or In my world, Justin Morneau is not a baseball player, but a prehistoric mammal-like reptile whose fossilized remains were found in my backyard, and the question of what happens if Justin Morneau tries to cross the same river twice. For now, I’ll just leave matters with Jason Moreau as the winner of this year’s Home Run Derby.

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Posted in Scope ambiguity, Sports | 3 Comments »

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.

Posted in Compound words, Lexical semantics, Ohioana, Sports, You're so literal! | 4 Comments »