Monday, July 12, 2010

Word Cup

I heard a CNN reporter say that Spain had "clinched" the World Cup. This is a now common misuse of the word as applied to sports contests. When the Giants are in first place by five games over the second place team with four games to play in the season, they have "clinched" the division championship, even though they have not yet won it, because there are still games to play. "Clinched" means that mathematically you will win.

But Spain won the final game (or "match") in the World Cup. So they didn't clinch the Cup. They won the World Cup.

So who cares? When you misuse a word like this, you lose its meaning. If "clinch" is substituted for "win," how do you describe the situation previously described by "clinch?"

Another such fashion is in basketball reporting, in which announcers talk about "shot attempts." What is the difference between a shot attempt and a shot? The distinction used to be between a shot and a made shot. So what in the world is a shot attempt? Somebody tries to shoot but fails--the ball falls out of his or her hand? It's a different sort of word problem--an unnecessary addition that clots things up, and confuses meaning, in the guise of saying something meaningful.

It's useful to make these points in a sports context because, for all the ribbing that sportswriters and announcers take about their verbiage, they have a tradition of careful and precise use of language. For example, one of the last bastions of the correct distinction between "less" and "fewer" is ESPN's SportsCenter. In sports, the distinction between quantity and number is still important.

That distinction is important everywhere, but it is slipping away because we're losing words. Dip into a Jane Austen dialogue and within a sentence or two, it is clear how words name distinctions of feeling and perception that would go unrecognized without the precise words to describe them.


Anonymous said...

It pains me to note a error in one of your missives.
I recall your tenure as the former King of Spain many years ago,I was flabbergasted to note you failed to remark on the egregious error not only in the use of the term "clinched" but the obvious failure to recognize the the World Cup was won by SPAIN!!!

I remain
Y're 'umble & Ob'dient S'vnt


Captain Future said...

Don't know what you mean, Lem. It says Spain, see? It always said Spain. And Oceania has always been at war with EastAsia.

Okay, I'm busted. Doubly embarrassing in a post about the misuse of language. Even if this is a mere fact. Obviously, the World Cup is not a sports event I follow. I especially hate that noise.