Sunday, September 10, 2006


You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
- Inigo Montoya, in William Goldman's The Princess Bride

If I had the power and authority to enter the English language, and to render one particular word and its variations unusable by a specific segment of the population, I know exactly what word and what population I'd choose.

I love tooling around with language. It's one of the things that drew me to a theater arts degree in the first place; as an actor, there are a lot of different things you can focus on to bring life to a role, but one of the coolest (to me, anyway) and seldom seen is the ability to shape a character by the sounds he makes. (Not to mention that the only way you can repeat the exact same words over and over again over a two-to-three month period without them driving you wholly bonkers is if you have some irrational amount of love for the language, but I begin to digress...)

I also like reading things and listening to things that make creative use of language. Not everything in these things I enjoy has to be 100% Received Standard English, or done precisely according to the grammar and usage rules in the Little, Brown Handbook, but if you're going to misuse a word, misuse it creatively. (Such as with the Richard Brinsley Sheridan character Mrs. Malaprop.)

If you really want to get my teeth grating, though, take a word, misuse it blandly, then keep misusing it in the same fashion over and over until I start screaming at the book or radio in disbelief. It's a major turn-off.

The population I have in mind to be cut off entirely from a particular word and its derivatives is sports commentators, and to a lesser degree, sports fans. The word is 'dominant'.

The combination of factors that painfully reminded me of this longstanding resolution involved the opening Sunday of NFL football, and a Twins game in which Johan Santana took the mound against the AL Central leading Detroit Tigers.

We'll start with the latter point.

It's one thing to note, as the Star-Tribune did in their official recap of the game, that the Twins 12-1 victory was 'dominant'. Baseball doesn't often see double-digit margins of victory, especially with a division leader on the tail end, so in that sense, the usage of the word is defensible. If that were the only context in which the word was used, I'd have no cause for complaint, though I'll also point out that, since the Twins don't often score 12 runs in a game, and the Tigers seldom give up that many, 'lucky' would be as apppropriate a word to describe the victory as 'dominant'.

No, the problem comes once you factor in one Johan Santana, about whom very few people can write without reflexively including the word 'dominant', as if it described him in the same sense as the phrase 'left-handed starting pitcher' describes him. Don't believe me? Check out the nearly 50,000 hits resulting from a simple Google search - if I had the ability to refine the search like a Lexis-Nexis search to only show results where the word 'dominant' appears within three or five words of the name "Santana", I'm sure there would still be over 10,000 hits.

Santana is a very good pitcher, of that there's no doubt. After winning the AL Cy Young award in 2004 and narrowly missing winning it in 2005, Santana is poised to win the award in 2006 as there aren't many pitchers performing near his level. Throwing a two-hitter against the team with the best record in the American League coming into the game is a suitably impressive feat, though a bit of luster is lost when you realize that Santana only pitched a hair over six innings in the process. If it wasn't for those 50,000 references to Santana's 'dominance', I might even consider this specific performance worthy of the word. But I'm burned out on the pairing, so I resist even this reasonably suitable occasion to break out the word.

But if Johan Santana has gotten a lot of 'dominant' written about him, how much more often is the word bandied about in discussions of the NFL, that most testosterone-laden of American sports. Listening to updates and games on the radio today while I was tinkering around with other stuff, I tried to keep track of the number of times an announcer slipped in 'dominant', 'dominance', or some other variation on the theme when talking about a team (the Patriots, the Colts), a player (Payton Manning, Terrell Owens, Steve Hutchinson?), or just some combination of otherwise seemingly random events.

The topper finally came in the Sunday Night game between the Colts and the Giants - the 'contest of Mannings' - when one of my favorite announcers, Bob Trumpy, repeatedly referred to the Colts as 'dominant' while leading the Giants 13-0 in the second quarter. Granted, any time one team is shutting out another you're likely to get 'dominating' language, but this game was both too early and too close to bust out that kind of talk, at least in my opinion. And sure enough, with forty seconds left in the half, Eli Manning found Plaxico Burress slipping down the right sideline for 37 yards and a touchdown, making the score 13-7.

13-7 isn't a score that makes me think one team is 'dominating' the other. How about you? And, as if on cue, the word 'dominating' suddenly disappeared from Trumpy's descriptions of the game. Had the Colts scored touchdowns rather than field goals on their first two possessions of the game, so that the score was 21-0 instead of 13-0, and the late end-of-half field goal Adam Vinatieri kicked would have pushed the score to 24-7, then maybe, maybe I could envision talking about how the Colts 'dominated' the first half, moving at will, giving up only a single surprise long pass down the sideline to a good receiver in a mismatch. Instead, as I write this, the score is now 16-14 and the two teams have exactly the same number of first downs. Nobody's dominating anybody here. Move along.

Granted, 'dominating' and its variations are far from the only words vastly overused by the sports fraternity in a quest to add hype and excitement, even in situations where hype isn't necessary. But it's the one that bugs me the most, because it seems to show a fundamental lack of originality and thoughtfulness in the presentation of what, in the end, is an entertainment. A good improv actor would have at least a half-dozen words and phrases available that would be more appropriate and less boring to listen to than 'dominating'. Consider:

Instead of "Indianapolis is dominating on third downs." - "Indianapolis is holding the advantage here with their outstanding third down percentage."

Instead of "Payton Manning is dominating the Giant secondary," - "Manning is pinpointing some weaknesses in the Giant secondary; it'll be interesting to see if the New York coaching staff can adjust over halftime."

Instead of "Johan Santana had another typicaly dominant performance." - "Santana pitched in Cy Young form once again, and his offense supported him with a tsunami of runs."

Is it really that difficult? Or are sports guys just that much less interested in the language than I am?

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