11 May 2005

the king gets untracked

A bit of a hub-bub today at Language Log regarding one of my pet interests, the linguistics of sports. Much of the discussion revolves around the usage of "getting untracked" to indicate ending a slump or spell of poor play.

Lila Gleitman mentions it in a hockey context, possibly involving the Flyers in the 60s. Mark Liberman uncovers quite a few baseball usages. I know I've heard it myself quite a bit - I googled {untracked hockey} and got about 4400 hits. Most of it is not that interesting, but shows a consistent usage of "get untracked" meaning "pull out of a slump" (Except one or two mentions of untracked snow).

Google is not a good place to look for historical data, but I found an overview of the career of King Clancy, a Senators phenom in the 20s who later would help Toronto to its first Stanley Cup. After retiring, Clancy became a coach; in this passage he describes one of his first coaching jobs:

Clancy was hired to coach the Montreal Maroons in 1937-38. "The team never got untracked in the one month I was there, and before I knew it, I was out of a job," King shrugged. The Maroons won six, lost eleven and tied one in the 18 games Clancy was employed by the Maroons.

It's not clear when this passage (part of an interview) was written, so it's not really evidence of anything other than "untracked" being used before 1986 (when Clancy died). But it does make me wonder whether he'd have used the phrase in 1937, or whether it entered his lexicon decades later.

I actually think a model of the sporting world's lexicon is in some sense warranted, but it's got to include a distinction between core concepts and peripheral constructions. The core concepts include the names of positions, equipment, and elements of rules, while the peripheral constructions mark the discourse surrounding a game or sport. "Get untracked" is one of these - if you see it or hear it, you can be fairly sure the topic is a team or player in a slump. The interest here is lexicographic - where the terminology or phrase comes from, whether it applies metaphorically outside the sport, and whether it transfers across sports (as "get untracked" probably did, from baseball to hockey, sometime before the 1960's). Whether a model of this kind of lexicon enriches our knowledge of linguistics is another thing, but it seems like a unique way of tracking the diffusion of sound/meaning/function triplets across time and (social) space.


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