30 August 2005


In a continuing quest for lexical items that cross over sports, I have resorted to reading summaries of tennis matches, which has me slapping my forehead for not having noticed the use of ace: tennis, cards, dice, golf, and beyond. But this one's trajectory is not at all obvious, since it's associated with games whose origins are far more ancient than those that give us home runs and touchdowns.

OED puts the earliest use of ace as the side of a die with one point value, and tracing the word from Old French as, from Latin as, meaning unity or unit. The earliest citation is from c. 1300: Harrowing of Hell 21 Stille be thou, Sathanas! The ys fallen ambes aas. (ambes aas = two aces, a.k.a. snake eyes). The earliest citation in a card-playing context is from 1533.

The tennis use of ace means "unreturnable serve", and its notion of one-ness seemingly relates to the earning of a point with one stroke. OED has 19th-century citations to this effect, with earlier uses referring more generally to any point in any volleying game. Also notably, Oxford has a 1920 citation of ace used for a hole-in-one in golf.

Outside sports and games, it can mean "one who is good at what they do". OED's earliest reference is to skilled fighter pilots in WW1, noted cryptically "after F. as". Its extension outside military usage is "chiefly US". Other chiefly US usages of ace are a slang term for dollar, and a verbal usage, meaning to earn an excellent score on a test or exam.

Here's what's not immediately clear: (1) is the "unreturnable serve" usage extended from the dice/cards usage, and if so, in French or English? (2) how did the "expert" usage come about? Reading the OED entry, I got the faintest hint that the "unreturnable serve" is an English innovation, but the "skilled one" is a second borrowing from French. Intrigued, I took a walk to the library, looking for French resources. (If you read French you'll see my interpretations below are a bit loose).

I consulted numerous dictionnaires etymologiques, the least helpful of which said the following:

As, du L. as (meme sens). (As, from Latin as, same sense).

The others seemed to agree that as took on a dice role first, jumping to cards, but differ in their stories of how the "expert" usage came along. Caillon (1962) mentions it, but makes no explicit connection:

AS [ass] (du l. as unité de monnaie, de poids), carte a jouer qui n'est marquée qu'un point. Fig. pop.: le premier dans son genre. (From Latin as, a unit of money or weight; playing card worth one point. Slang: the best in one's field.)

Bloch & von Wartburg (1932/1968) assert that the "expert" usage extends the winning position of the ace in a deck of playing cards:

As. Lat. as «unité de monnaie, de mésure»; a dû être employé de bonne heure pour le jeu de dés, d'où postérieurement pour le jeu des cartes. As «homme de valeur» partic. dans les sports, d'après la valeur de l'as dans les jeux de cartes, est du XXe s. (Lat, unit of money or measure, soon to be used in dice, and later for playing cards. As "one who is strong", particularly in sports, after the value of the ace in cards, is of the 20th C.)

However, Dauzat (1938) traces the "expert" usage through a military application (as hinted at by OED):

as (XIIe s., var asse, XVIe s.). empr. au. lat. as, unité de monnaie, de poids; en fr. terme de jeu de dés, puis de cartes; au fig. «cavalier du premier péloton», argot milit. (début du XXe s.), puis «soldat de valeur» (sens développé par la guerre) et, par ext., «homme de valeur»; le sens pop. as, plur., «argent», vient d'as, carte maîtresse. (from Latin as, unit of money or weight; in French, term of dice, then of cards; figuratively to "rider at head of column", military usage, then "skilled soldier" (developed during the war), and by extension "skilled person". Slang as, plural, "money", comes from ace as a winning card).

So, several neat outcomes:

(1) As in French and ace in English reacquired a meaning of money that as once had in Latin.

(2) The "unreturnable serve" is an English extension of ace. Except for very recent borrowing back to French from English, French as in a tennis context refers to a good player rather than a good serve. (I found a French tennis lexicon online with the search term marquer un ace, in which ace is listed as follows: balle de service que le relanceur peut toucher, mais ne peut relancer dans les limites du court. Réussir un ace permet de gagner un point avec une balle de service (service ball that the receiver can touch, but cannot return in bounds. Getting an ace scores a point with the serve). But ace is not in any print French dictionary I consulted, and no entry for as mentions this usage.

(3) As, as "head of column", is French for point man.

24 August 2005

sign and trade X for Y

Just a little gapped coordination I noticed today in a headline on TSN.ca:

Senators sign and trade Hossa for Heatley

I know exatcly what it's supposed to mean: the Senators sign Hossa, and then trade him to another team, receiving Heatley in exchange.

I guess I wouldn't have noticed if both verbs had single complements, as in Senators sign and trade Hossa. The actual coordination is a so-called WTF construction, in which the two halves of a coordination are of unlike categories. In this case, one's a single-complement verb and the other is a double-complement verb.

Now, I'm not complaining, but my expectation from the actual coordination is that the complement of the second verb is also understood as the gapped complement of the first verb. This led me to the two following parses:

a. [ [ [sign ___i] and [trade Hossai] ] for Heatley ]

b. [ [sign ___i] and [trade [Hossa for Heatley]i ] ]

In (a), the structure implies that the signing and trading of Hossa were both done for Heatley's benefit (which is not inaccurate). But the placement of for Heatley outside the VP headed by trade suggests that Heatley wanted both actions done, and not necessarily that he was one of the traded parties. (Based on the assumption that if you are "trading X for Y", X and Y are both VP-internal arguments).

In (b), there is this phrase Hossa for Heatley which is understood as the complement of both verbs. But for Heatley seems to be weird as an internal argument for sign.

I can think of four ways of reacting to this:

(1) Dismiss it as ungrammatical or errorful.
(2) Leave it as a product of the special grammar of sports reporting.
(3) Attribute it to headline space restrictions, which preclude Senators sign Hossa and trade him for Heatley.
(4) Adhere to a theory of grammar that allows gapped configurations in which the gapped complement can co-refer with an overt element embedded within the coordinated complement. Thus the following structure:

c. [ [sign ___i] and [trade [Hossai] [for Heatley] ] ]

I'm inclined towards (4). It's not up to me to decide which data is usable and which isn't, which rules out (1). If it were just an aspect of sports reporting, it's still left unexplained. If it's a headline issue, other headlines are clearly longer, as in Champions: Liverpool advances despite loss and Theissen not concerned about Williams in 2006.

(Final possibility: headlines seem to avoid pronouns. In a sample of 44 headlines all clustered together, I found only one with a pronoun: Pistons add Davis to their frontcourt. It's hard to determine how many could have had pronouns but didn't. Looks like the theory implied in (4) needs to let avoid-pronouns-in-headlines trump avoid-wtf-coordinations)

19 August 2005

Yes, your mate-liness

OK, can't let this pass uncommented upon. If you just want the headline, Uproar forces Australian parliament to lift ban on saying "mate". Officials had issued a directive to forbid security guards from calling people "mate", which Prime Minister Howard's government had to rescind in embarrassment.

I suppose it's equivalent to a guard calling you "man", "buddy", or "dude", but clearly more culturally charged. I can imagine a similar uproar if the state legislature in California tried to forbid the use of "dude", but only on the basis of the absurdity in the decree, and not on the basis of its cultural relevance in the California vernacular.

07 August 2005


This post has several functions. One, just testing Blogger's image hosting. Two, testing how images look in the layout. Three, sharing some PartiallyClips inspired linguistic "humour".