Grammatical Madness

By Joe Diorio

Something I once wrote made lawyers for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) send me an angry letter.

In 2000 I was a consultant for a “dot-com” startup that provided advice and equipment for athletic coaches. Among the company founders were two college basketball coaches. Their position as NCAA coaches entitled them to free tickets to the NCAA basketball national championship tournament weekend, known among sports fans as the “Final Four.” They decided to use their tickets as prizes to promote the fledgling company.

I wrote and posted a promotion on the website announcing that one could enter to win tickets to those four games, using the term “Final Four” in my copy.

No sooner did that website announcement appear than a letter arrived from the NCAA, tersely telling us that the term “Final Four” is a registered trademark, property of the NCAA, and cannot be used for commercial purposes without permission.

(I am compelled to mention that A Few Words About Words® is a free newsletter and – I hope – falls into the category of a news outlet. Don’t “@” me, NCAA.)

Upon seeing this letter one of the company founders scoffed and said we wouldn’t change the website and that the NCAA could go ahead and sue us. His logic was that the publicity would be worth the hassle. The company never was sued.

This demonstrates the zealousness surrounding names for the springtime national collegiate basketball championship tournament. Not only is the nickname affiliated with that last weekend of college basketball protected, but so is the nickname describing the tournament leading up to those final games, “March Madness.”

It didn’t start that way. The term was first coined by Henry V. Porter, an Illinois high school basketball coach. He mentioned it when writing about the state championship tournament, even including it in a poem he wrote. The last stanza of the poem reads:

With war nerves tense, the final defense

Is the courage, strength and will

In a million lives where freedom thrives

And liberty lingers still.

Now eagles fly and heroes die

Beneath some foreign arch

Let their sons tread where hate is dead

In a happy Madness of March.

History notes there were considerable legal battles over the ownership of the term, with the NCAA ultimately emerging as the winner.

The iron-clad ownership of both terms explains why so many advertising and marketing campaigns employ clever copywriting to discuss the championship without ever using the proprietary terms. You may read “the big games,” or as Scott Tattar, a professor at Drexel University suggests, simply, “The Tournament.”

Copywriter Michael Bense – who I must emphasize is a professional advertising copywriter (you’ll see why I say that in a second) – suggests “Ultimate Quadrival” and “Vernal Equinox Derangement.” Michael was obviously shooting from beyond the three-point arc on those attempts at lexicological wizardry.

Odds and ends (mostly odds)

If the name worked once … Twitter account @PopCrave on January 17 wrote that singer Justin Timberlake confirmed to Ellen DeGeneres that he and his wife, actor Jessica Biel, “welcomed their second child named Phineas.” Someone aptly – and quickly; it is Twitter we’re talking about here – mused, “They have two kids named Phineas?”

COVID-19 term du jour … First heard on local television news in mid-January. The practice of traveling out-of-state to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine is being called “vaccine tourism.” Anybody setting their watch for when a flyer arrives in the mail with a picture of Mickey Mouse standing on a beach and holding a syringe?

Here is one for the Apostrophe Protection Society … Reader Annie Micale Webb in early February offers this observation: “I just noticed that the B-52’s and the Go-Go’s have apostrophes in their names and I’m grammatically triggered. Why are they there? The B-52’s WHAT? The Go-Go’s WHAT?”

And so it won’t be overlooked … March 4 is National Grammar Day. I find it sad we dedicate only one of the 365 to grammar, but I guess that’s just me. (Check out the next post to read more.)

Let’s write carefully out there, people. 

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.

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