Friday, November 20, 2009

RE-POST in honor of THE BIG GAME 2009: in more better real time!

{originally posted during WIMBLEDON, 2009}

10:36-ish am. Federer comes from behind to take the second set -- winning 6 straight points. Roddick clearly choked and gifted him with at least 3 of those points. Grrr. Still, Andy is playing some of the best tennis of his life.

If Federer is true to form, he will now raise the level of play to a height unavailable to the rest of us mortals.

Or not.

Have I ever explained the Brother-Unit Grader Boob's theory that I am one of those mythical creatures now known as a jinx, and therefore should not be allowed physical occupancy in the room where the match/game in question is being televised? The theory involves Malted Milk Balls, the Duke Blue Devils, the Davidson Wildcats, even the Stanford marching band...

The Play refers to a last-second kickoff return during a college football game between the University of California Golden Bears and the Stanford University Cardinal on November 20, 1982. Given the circumstances and rivalry, the wild game that preceded it, the very unusual way in which The Play unfolded, and its lingering aftermath on players and fans, it is recognized as a highly memorable play in college football history and among the most memorable in American sports.

After Stanford had taken a 20-19 lead on a field goal with four seconds left in the game, the Golden Bears used five lateral passes on the ensuing kickoff return to score the winning touchdown and earn a 25-20 victory. Members of the Stanford Band had come onto the field midway through the return, believing that the game was over, which added to the ensuing confusion and folklore. There remains disagreement over the legality of two of the laterals, adding to the passion surrounding the traditional rivalry of the annual "Big Game."

If you've never seen it, you really should. It was hilarious.

Etymology of jinx:
[Q] From Mark Raymond in Australia: What are the origins of the word jinx? It seems such a strange word.

[A] It does look odd, and its origin is in dispute. Explaining why is going to need a moment, since along the way we must take in the Ancient Greeks, the study of birds, witchcraft, nineteenth century vaudeville and the history of baseball.

First, the firm facts. The word jinx, in the sense of a thing or person that brings bad luck, is first recorded as sports slang from the US in the early years of the twentieth century. Most of the early American citations relate to baseball — for example, The Jinx: Stories of the Diamond by Allen Sangree of 1910 and Christy Mathewson’s Pitching at a Pinch of 1912, in which he says: “A jinx is something which brings bad luck to a ball player”. From there it spread out into standard American English and later to other varieties of the language.

Most dictionaries say with varying degrees of conviction that the word derives from the classical Greek word iunx for the bird that we in Britain call the wryneck. It’s a member of the woodpecker family, a species that breeds across Europe and Asia. It has a strange habit of twisting its neck right round when it’s alarmed or when it’s watchfully at rest, hence its English name; it has an odd courtship ritual, in which the male and female perch opposite one another, shaking their heads about, and gaping their mouths to show the pink inside. Such curious behaviour made people think the wryneck was uncanny, and from the time of the Greeks there were superstitions attached to it, with links to witchcraft, divination and magic. Its Greek name passed into Latin and then into English, either as yunx or jynx. So it’s not surprising that dictionary writers often suggest that jinx comes from this bird of superstition.

But there are two big holes in this theory: the wryneck is not a North American bird and the word jynx for it was always a scholarly and uncommon one even in British English. Appropriate though it was, it would be surprising to learn that American sportsmen seized upon it.

Another theory has been put forward by Barry Popik of the American Dialect Society, an indefatigable researcher into the history of the American language, especially of sporting vocabulary. He suggested that it comes instead from a song, Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines. Following his tip, I delved into its history.

It was a famous vaudeville song, written and sung by William Lingard and first published in 1868. Captain Jinks was an unsuccessful soldier, who was eventually drummed out of the Army. The key verse is this:

The first day I went out to drill
The bugle sound made me quite ill,
At the Balance step my hat it fell,
And that wouldn't do for the Army.
The officers they all did shout,
They all cried out, they all did shout,
The officers they all did shout,
“Oh, that's the curse of the Army”.

This became all the rage, almost immediately spawning another song by Will Hays about the captain’s supposed wife: Mistress Jinks of Madison Square. It grew to be a well-liked square dance tune, and a popular song of soldiers in the American Army in the decades after 1870. In 1901, the young Ethel Barrymore starred at the Garrick Theatre in New York in Clyde Fitch’s melodrama of the 1870s which he called Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines; in 1902 Ernest Crosby, a friend of Mark Twain, wrote a satirical anti-imperialist novel about the Spanish-American War with the title Captain Jinks, Hero.

So, even thirty years after the song originally appeared, it was still sufficiently well known that a playwright and author of the early 1900s could separately refer to it in titles in the expectation that their audiences would understand them. And these works appeared only three or four years before the first recorded use of the word in its sense of curse. To support his theory, Barry Popik has found that many of the early sporting references spell the word jinks.

Despite the authority of the ranks of dictionaries glowering at me from my shelves, I must say Mr Popik’s theory is persuasive. What’s missing, of course, is direct evidence that Captain Jinks, that curse of the army, was the inspiration for the term, or how it came to appear first in sports slang. That we may never discover.

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