04 June 2005

you take point

Several months ago I was playing Medal of Honor, a first-person shooter game set in WW2 Europe. I was on a mission through the Ardennes, and found myself on a snowy country road lined with steep hedges when an artificial-intelligence controlled colleague turned to me and said, "You take point". And my first thought was, what, we're on a power play?

A little digging revealed that taking the point (and thus being the point man) has several distinct meanings, one of which is military (derived from ranching/herding), and one of which is sporting. It's also not clear that the sporting use is directly applied from the military (or ranching) one.

Here's the military usage of point man from OED: The soldier who walks at the head of a patrol. With apologies for the epithet, the earliest citation is this: 1944 Yank 4 Feb. 9/1 The Jap point man was on the scene before any camouflaging could be done.

Oxford also cites point as the region on a hockey rink just inside the attacking zone and close to the boards:

An area just in front of the opposing team's blue line close to each edge of the rink, where players on offence are often positioned, esp. during power plays. 1953 Globe & Mail (Toronto) 27 Nov. 24/3 He missed a pass-out from Gord Howe and the puck went to Pronovost on the blue-line point.

I once heard the reason was that the blue line and boards form a right-angle, i.e. a point.

The point man is the player on the attacking team who holds this region during a power play (a man advantage, with an opponent serving a penalty). The point man intercepts clearing attempts made along the boards, ensuring the puck stays in the attacking zone, and time permitting, will also take shots and pray for a lucky bounce through the throng of players crowding the goalie. It's a position of trust and responsibility, but not leadership.

It would be easy, but perhaps inaccurate, to cite hockey's point man as a metaphorical extension of the military point man. The first 100 or so web sites that come up for {point-man} as a google search term all refer either to the military use of it, a metaphorical extention of the military use (e.g., leading a trade delegation), or to a religious movement. Only one mentions the hockey use ... of all places, the Mavens' word of the day, in a discussion of "point man":

Point in the sense 'the leading party of a military advance guard' is first recorded at the beginning of the 20th century. The point is also the position at the head of a column or V-shaped wedge of troops. Point man meaning 'the lead soldier of a patrol' dates from the mid-1940s; like the cowboy, he is said to "ride, walk, or take (the) point." (Actually he is sometimes positioned at the back of the rear guard, also a dangerous position.)

Later in the same discussion we see this:

In ice hockey, the point man is the player in the offensive position inside the attacking zone.

This is not quite precise enough. Despite the qualifier in the Mavens' entry, it seems like the dominant (non-hockey) use of point man is the lead position of an attack. However, in a power play situation, as I describe above, the point man is inside the zone, but trails the lead attacking group. And this is not quite bringing up the rear, in the sense of watching for counter-attack from behind.

I propose the trajectory of point man in hockey to be like this: sometime after the introduction of blue lines to manage offsides, the area of the rink came to be called the point. The player working this area became the point man. This may have happened independently, or it may have been encouraged by the frequency of point man in news media during the war. If that is the case, the metaphorical extension brought the phrase and its sense of a responsible member of an attacking group, but not its sense of leader of an attacking group.

Oddly enough, I have seen the leadership role in power-plays referred to as the quarterback. Another example of terminology crossing over sports.


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