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Play ball, and Strike Out the Nicknames

By Joe Diorio

The 2021 Major League Baseball (MLB) season has a first and a last. This is the first full 162 game season since 2020’s pandemic-shortened season. And it will be the last season (maybe) that the baseball franchise in Cleveland, Ohio will be known by the nickname, “Indians.”

After 106 years, owners of the Cleveland nine (a generic nickname referring to nine players per side; it was coined by sportswriter Damon Runyon in the 1920’s, but I digress) decided (realized?) that the name “Indians” is racially insensitive. The team will therefore change its name to a “new, non-Native American” moniker, or so the team announced last December.

Unlike the Washington franchise in the National Football League (NFL), which dropped the name “Redskins” and for now is known simply as “Washington,” the Cleveland baseball team will keep the name “Indians” for one more season then debut a new nickname in 2022, although team owner Paul Dolan recently said he didn’t want to rush into picking a new name.

The Cleveland team was originally known as the “Lake Shores,” since Cleveland is on the banks of Lake Erie. They also were known as the Spiders (a name that’s an insider favorite for the new, 21st Century name), and the “Naps,” named for Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie, a Hall of Famer who played for the team from 1902 to 1915.

The genesis of the name “Indians” is said to be connected to Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian who played for Cleveland in the late 1800s. Sockalexis was good, but sadly an addiction to alcohol shortened his career. Some argue the name “Indians” was done in his honor. More likely it was a fan vote that led to the adoption of the name.

Sports is under scrutiny for team names and images, but it is hardly a new trend. Sportswriter Filip Bondy talked about the problem with racist images in sports almost a decade ago. Where did some of these questionable team names come from?

Atlanta Braves (MLB) – the team was once known as the Boston Red Stockings (the team originated in Boston, then moved to Milwaukee, and later to Atlanta). In 1912 they became the Braves when new owner James Gaffney stepped into the picture. Gaffney was an alderman for the New York political organization Tammany Hall, which used an Indian headdress for its emblem. Hence the team became known as the Braves.

Kansas City Chiefs (NFL) – the franchise played its inaugural season in 1962 in Dallas as the “Dallas Texans.” They moved to Kansas City, Missouri the next year and became known as the Chiefs, a name connected to former Mayor Harold Roe Bartle, who played a pivotal role in bringing the team to Kansas City and whose nickname in political circles was “the Chief.”

Chicago Blackhawks (National Hockey League) – the team traces the origin of its name from original owner Frederic McLaughlin, who served in the U.S. Army’s 86th Infantry Division, known as the Blackhawks. The name Blackhawks is pervasive in the Army; its UH-60 helicopter uses the same name. Both the Army and the NHL’s Blackhawks are criticized by Native American organizations for use of the name.

Sports teams can change names successfully. The men’s and women’s athletic teams from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee are known as the “Bruins,” but if you go back in time Belmont’s teams – the entire school, in fact – used the nickname “Rebels,” a direct connection to the Confederate army. The school switched to “Bruins” around 1995 with nary a peep.

Pop quiz

How long has the practice of verbing a noun (as in, “I shall author a book.”) been a part of language? (Answer farther down.)

Heard on the air

During a discussion on ESPN about the future of Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers, analyst Tedy Bruschi said he was confident Rodgers would finish his playing career “outside of a Green Bay uniform.” Aren’t there public decency laws about that?

Brevity is not always your friend

On March 28 Kaitlan Collins, White House Correspondent for CNN, tweeted “OMG,” sending her 1.1 million followers into a tizzy. Did something happen with President Biden? Were we at war?

Nah. Collins is an alumna of the University of Alabama and an avid ‘Bama sports fan (a photo of head football coach Nick Saban is her Twitter banner image), and she was reacting to the last-second loss by the University of Alabama men’s basketball team to UCLA in the NCAA national basketball tournament.

Everyone who follows Collins breathed a collective sigh of relief after she wrote, “I should have clarified it was a sports tweet.” ‘Nuf said.

Quiz answer

Verbing the nouns has been around since the 13th Century, so say most dictionaries and lexicographers. The rate at which nouns are verbed, however, is increasing. I blame the internet.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

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.

Tips for National Grammar Day

By Joe Diorio

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE – In honor of National Grammar Day (March 4, 2021) Nashville writer Joe Diorio, author of the book, A Few Words About Words: A common sense look at writing and grammar (due out in August 2021 from Beaufort Books) offers his top 10 grammatical tips.

  1. Overheard at a COVID-19 vaccine site: A nurse asked a patient, “Can you roll up your sleeve?” He probably can, but the more accurate usage would be, “Please roll up your sleeve.”
  2. When you talk about COVID-19, remember saying “pandemic” means worldwide. Saying “global pandemic” therefore is redundant.
  3. We experienced many emotions during the inauguration of President Joe Biden on January 20, but no one was “balling” their eyes out. More accurately, they were “bawling” their eyes out.
  4. For TV news anchors, this summer when the temperature goes past 100, remember it is not “a hundred degrees” outside. Saying “a hundred” is an expression of volume. It therefore is “one hundred degrees” outside.
  5. No matter what, “irregardless” is a word. It has been since 1795. It means the same thing as “regardless,” so please just use “regardless.”
  6. “Uncharted” does not mean the same thing as “unchartered.” Remember, “unchartered” would refer to the part of that famous three-hour tour where the SS Minnow wound up on a heretofore “uncharted” island.
  7. When referring to the NFL team in Washington, D.C., it isn’t necessary to call them, “the team formerly known as the Washington Redskins.” Think about it, does anyone in Nashville refer to the local NFL team as “the team formerly known as the Houston Oilers?”
  8. Do not use an apostrophe when pluralizing your name. Never.
  9. Using a double asterisk to designate something important in a text is acceptable, and not just because we are all texting these days. The Chicago Manual of Style notes it is acceptable to use when highlighting something important.
  10. “Affect” is a verb, “effect” is a noun. Except when they aren’t. Look this one up.

Joe is the author of A Few Words About Words, the free monthly newsletter about good writing.

Greeks and democracy

By Joe Diorio

The January 20, 2021 Inauguration of Joseph R. Biden, Jr. presented two opportunities to reflect on great writing: President Biden’s acceptance speech and the wonderful poem, “The Hill We Climb,” by Amanda Gorman.

What struck me as I listened to both President Biden and Gorman are the analogies and similarities to public speaking techniques utilized in Greek literature. Garry Wills, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, offers a series of comparative techniques used in Greek oratory that appear in the Gettysburg Address and which remain relevant to this day.

Wills writes about the Greek oratory with respect for its use in a speech commemorating a new cemetery. One of the comparisons he cites is light and dark. “The dead go into the dark; but the living need the splendor of the departed, as they do the sun.”

Gorman, in her opening line, uses a similar analogy when she says, “When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”

In his opening comments, President Biden also utilizes the light/dark idea as he says, “This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day.”

Wills discusses the contrast of choice and determination, and Gorman takes the handoff on that message, saying, “Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”

Wills notes that words and deeds are a frequent participant in Greek oratory, explaining it is hard to fit words to the heroes’ great accomplishments. President Biden takes that topic to heart, saying “so now on this hallowed ground where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for two centuries.”

President Biden’s speech can be read here. Gorman’s poem can be read here.

Greeks and Bernie

The internet meme of Bernie Sanders – do I have to describe it? – took the internet by storm in the days after January 20. It would be far easier to list where a Bernie meme did not appear (I’m putting my money on Pope Francis’ Twitter feed, but I haven’t checked.) than where it did.

Linguist Gretchen McCulloch, in her book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, explains that the term meme has Greek roots, outgrowing from the word mimeme, meaning “imitated thing.” So that’s another thing from January 20 we can connect to Greek culture. If you believe Gus Portokalos, the patriarch portrayed by Michael Constantine in the movie, “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding,” just about everything comes from Greek culture. But I haven’t checked that, either.

Bawling or Balling …

Great tweet from @jhollymc offered on Inauguration Day, when more than a few of us were perhaps feeling emotional over the moment. “Lots of people crying today, so here’s a reminder from the word police: If you are crying, you are ‘bawling your eyes out.’ If you are ‘balling your eyes out,’ that’s … well. Let’s stop there.”

OK, a puppy just died

Football fans and observers of politics spent a good deal of ink and air time discussing the fact that Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots football team, decided to decline the offer to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That was certainly news. But what caught my eye was this line from Belichick’s statement: “Above all, I’m an American citizen with great reverence for our nation’s values, freedom and democracy.”

Bill, Bill, Bill, it’s “… our nation’s values, freedom, and democracy” with a comma after “freedom” and before “and democracy.” Do not defer using the Oxford comma until the second half of the game. And as for “what’s up with the subhead, Joe?” I always maintain that every time you do not use the Oxford comma, a puppy dies. Thanks, Bill.

Nouns, not pronouns

Some members of the U.S. Congress recently griped about new rules requiring gender neutral writing. One wrote that the rules are “banning gendered pronouns,” words like “father, mother, son, and daughter” in favor of “parent, child” and so on.

I won’t call out the guilty party, but what immediately came to mind as I read about this is that the words mother, father, son, daughter, parent, and child are not pronouns, but nouns.

After I committed an error in this newsletter a reader quickly chided me saying, “Get your grammar right, then take your shot.” If it is true for me …

Let’s write carefully out there, people. 

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.

If it’s January, then it must be Festivus

By Joe Diorio

Time for my annual celebration of Festivus, when we air out grammatical gripes – my own and my readers.

Run-on sentence of the year does not go to CNN

Some readers asked if there can be a “Run-on Sentence Award” and that Maeve Reston of CNN be given the inaugural honor.

Ms. Reston, writing about the January 5 U.S. Senate runoff election in Georgia, penned this lengthy one-sentence tome: “With the eyes of the political universe, focused on turning out voters in Georgia — where the two runoff elections will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate — the President’s relentless attacks on the state’s voting apparatus, its tabulating process, and its Republican secretary of state are prompting handwringing among GOP strategists and state leaders who fear those attacks are eroding confidence in elections at a time when they need to turn out as many of their voters as possible to reelect Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue on January 5 and hold onto their firewall against a Democrat-controlled House and White House.”

Funny thing: Reston did NOT write a run-on sentence. The strict definition of a run-on sentence is when two sentences are smashed together without a coordinating conjunction or proper punctuation. Reston’s sentence, while long and having the potential of leaving the reader exhausted from reading it, would not draw a “tisk-tisk” from Miss Thistlebottom since it is properly punctuated and holds together from a grammatical standpoint.

That missive COULD have broken into separate sentences. Like this:

“The eyes of the political universe are focused on a turn out the vote effort in Georgia. That’s where a January 5 runoff election will determine whether Republicans or Democrats control the U.S. Senate. President Trump’s relentless attacks on the Georgia secretary of state and the overall voting apparatus might erode confidence in elections precisely when incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue need that confidence. If voters believe Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, then they may stay home on January 5, thereby hurting Loeffler and Perdue’s chances of victory. Their loss would hand the Senate to Democrats.”

Interchangeably? I think not

“Can we get reporters to stop using ‘uncharted’ and ‘unchartered’ interchangeably?” one reader asked.

Both are adjectives, but the similarity ends there. The word “uncharted” means an area not mapped or previously surveyed and is normally but not exclusively a nautical term. Conversely, “unchartered” means having no charter or constitution. Once again, in nautical terms “unchartered” would refer to the part of that famous three-hour tour where the Minnow wound up on a heretofore “uncharted” island.

An unnecessary rush to the finish line

Kudos to copywriter Jessica Shepard for her advice on not being lazy when trying to finish a writing project. Her wisdom was shared on her LinkedIn page.

“When you’re writing … long form sales page or a home page, by the time you get to the CTA (Call To Action), you’re spent, right? So ya get lazy. You write ‘Learn more’ or ‘Sign up,’ then push your chair back and take a much-needed walk.

“But, um, here’s the thing: CTAs are sooooo important. They can make or break your conversions! They deserve more.

“So make the next step clear, risk-free, and irresistible for your customers. Pro tip: Write your CTAs in the first-person and finish this sentence your button copy: “I want to ______.”

Miscellaneous miscellany

From Mark Ankucic, a content marketing specialist at 3P Learning: “Read what you have written out loud. If you find a snag, edit it. If you run out of breath, shorten it. If it sounds insincere, delete it.”

A nurse at a COVID-19 vaccine site said to the patient, “Can you roll up your sleeve?” He probably can, but the proper grammar would have been, “Would you roll up your sleeve?”

Believe it or not, there are a few recipients of A Few Words About Words® who decide they don’t like the newsletter and opt out of the distribution list. Yes, I’m shocked too. One person, back in August, opted out by writing, “Too many emails. I grt over 100 a day.” Apparently, none of those emails are about proofreading.

Pandemic quotes I can live without

According to the Yale Book of Quotations, “Wear a mask,” says Dr. Anthony Fauci was the number one quote of 2020. I do wear a mask, but there is no shortage of pandemic quotes I will be glad to see disappear from everyday conversations in 2021: covidiot, maskne, you’re on mute, abundance of caution, false negative, and – one that may wind up in the dictionary – doomscrolling.

The typo of the year

This one goes to The Tennessean in Nashville, Tennessee. In April the Lego company, doing its part to help during the pandemic, announced it would stop making plastic toy bricks and would instead start making plastic face shields. The headline in the Tennessean read, “Lego s___s gears to produce 13,000 face visors.” Yes, I “bleeped” myself; think “number two.” You can’t make this stuff up.

Happy New Year and let’s write carefully out there, people.