05 May 2006

tightrope (v.)

As Jay Onrait of tsn.ca reports this morning,

How about this quote from Lebron James regarding his lay-up with less than a second left in overtime to lift his Cavs over the Wizards in Game 5 of their first round NBA Playoff series on Wednesday night: "I had enough room on the baseline, if I wore an 18 or 19 size shoe I wouldn't have made it. But I wear a 16 and was able to tightrope that baseline to get a lay-up." You can now add "tightrope that baseline" to the sports lexicon.

Well, I'm in favour of adding novel items to said lexicon, but there's more to it than that. Might be time to take stock of exactly what's in the sports lexicon.

A while back I made a core/periphery distinction among sports lexemes. Core terms are those that are intrinsic to a game - this includes (a) items used only in a sport or in metaphorical reference to that sport, e.g., scrum, and (b) specialized usages, e.g. both senses of safety in North American football, and baseline in the above quote. Periphery terms are those that mark the dialogue in and around sport, but aren't intrinsic to a game's structure, e.g. get untracked to mean "end a slump", or get off the schneid to mean "end a scoreless streak".

Also in the lexicon, I think, is a host of metaphors, many of which are better known as cliches. "We've got our backs against the wall", "It's gut check time", "we just gotta play with desperation", "this building is always tough to play in", ... . I say these are lexical because they're learned and used as full units (and used repeatedly). Further, the metaphor of "walking a tightrope" fits into this group, though James used only tightrope instead of the full phrase.

But I'm not sure that the verbing of the word is what qualifies it as a sports lexicon item. Sure, other nouns get verbed in the sport context. Quarterback, when crossed over into hockey, can act as a verb. The noun slump also has a gerundive counterpart slumping. But noun-to-verb derivation is productively available in English, and right now it's hard to determine whether such derivation is more likely in sports discourse than eslewhere - but I doubt it.

Looking back on what Ondrait wrote, I don't even think the verbal usage is what he's zeroed in on - I think it's specifically the use of the metaphorical tightrope in reference to the baseline.


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