Memories of Mary Jane

December 7th, 2016

In my thirties, I smoked marijuana, occasionally or regularly, depending on life’s circumstances. I know people who never liked it or never got much of an effect from it, but I liked getting stoned. It’s been decades since the last time I even saw any grass (as we called it back in my day—that and “dope”). I can’t even remember when that would have amoxil been.

I voted for the recent ballot question legalizing “recreational” marijuana use in Massachusetts, based on my belief that the drug is less dangerous than alcohol and that people should be free to choose how they want to enjoy life, even when there are risks involved, assuming the risks are not too great and can be evaluated.

I might say more about that question some other time, but here I want to write about two singular events—mental or spiritual events—that I experienced when stoned on marijuana. I am not selecting two out of many. There were only two in all the time I smoked grass (how quaint that word seems now). They were different from each other, but both were very powerful, unforgettable, and came out of the blue. I have no idea how unusual my experience is, but I know I am blessedly susceptible to epiphanies. There is really no way to convey the power of such an experience, but I’ll try to make clear what was (ambien) revealed to me in each instance.

The first experience was something akin to a Proustian onrush of memory. Proust (or rather, Marcel, the first-person narrator of his long work) famously described how his tasting the crumbs of a petite madeleine cake in a spoonful of warm tea triggered a mental event which suddenly took him back to a time and place from his childhood, not merely reminding him of it, but mentally immersing him in it, as though he had traveled in time. Marcel recounts a few other such events, which seemed to nullify the passage of time and which inspired him to write the book in which he is the narrator.

All of Marcel’s “involuntary memories” came about because of a fortuitous similarity that his immediate physical circumstances, as mediated through his body and its senses, had to some others in his past, which circumstances had been stored away in his memory, awaiting just the right correspondence to the present ones to suddenly evoke the past, not just as a remembrance of similarity, but as a vivid experience of the earlier time and place. Well, you’ll have to read Proust to see what I’m floundering around to convey.

The point I want to make is that Proust discovered that the mind, the brain, whatever you want to call it, holds the past in a detailed and holistic way that we couldn’t expect it to, since we cannot voluntarily, intentionally retrieve our earlier selves stored klonopin there.

My Proustian-like experience while stoned was triggered by nothing at all that I can recall. It just came. I don’t even remember where I was (vaguely seems to be Berkeley) or whom, if anyone, I was with. I’m almost sure I didn’t tell anyone about it at the time it happened. In any case it was years after my maternal grandparents had died. I have told at least one person about the experience, but it had happened years before I met her.

The time of my memory is when I had only one younger sister, and we were the only grandchildren my mother’s parents had. They lived out in the country in Northeast Texas. My family usually went there for Christmas. In the summer, my mother, sister, and I would spend weeks at a time there. Children, if they are lucky, as we were, can take the love of parents and grandparents for granted. It is only when we grow to adulthood, becoming ourselves a part of the older generation, that we can really understand, internally, the love that a parent has for a child, a grandparent for a grandchild. I know that my sister and I went through a period as older children where we could be quite disrespectful to my grandmother. Even now, I wish I could take that back, but, of course, I can’t.

The scene from my past into which I was thrust out of the blue takes place in the driveway under the bois d’arc tree (board arc, in the local vernacular) in front of my grandparents’ house. My sister and I, both quite young, are in the back seat of our family’s Ford. We are about to depart, about to be driven back by our father to our home 300 miles away, to be gone from here until the next time we visit, months in the future. My sister and I are not alone. Sitting between us is our grandmother. It is her presence that struck me so forcefully. I had totally forgotten how she would get into the back seat of the car and sit with my sister and me until the very last minute before our departure, just to be close to us for that much longer. Love so strong and deep, love that suffered so from parting, oh so many years ago! What a wonderful gift it was to have recovered that memory! To have received once again that love from her at an age at which I could appreciate it! As I still can. That is something precious I received in a state induced by marijuana, and I have no reason to think it would have happened otherwise.

The other experience is of a different sort. It is more like a revelation, though the truth that was revealed was something I knew already, in theory. What happened was a sudden insight, a stripping away of an old unconscious way of thinking to, in effect, show a miracle taking place. I do remember where this happened. It was in Cambridge in a Peabody Terrace apartment. One of the benefits of being stoned, to those of us that marijuana works on, is an enhancement of aesthetic pleasure. At this particular time, my attention was caught by the gorgeous geraniums we had growing in pots. I looked at them intently. The green stems and leaves. The red flowers. Not roses. Not carnations. Geraniums. Beaming beauty into the room. Growing out of the nondescript dark brown soil. Suddenly—for the first time in my life—I realized what was happening. The dirt was being turned into flowers! It was a stunning, joyful recognition. I had somehow managed to live my whole life still thinking as a child thinks, that the dirt was basically just holding the flowers. They needed to be stuck in something that would hold water, and dirt was what they needed to be stuck in. Of course, I knew about “nutrients” in the soil, about soil becoming exhausted, about the need to fertilize soil, etc., but the wonderful transformation that was actually occurring had somehow not made it into my consciousness with its full significance. It was like discovering God! Actually, it was discovering God, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Could I have had that insight without the aid of marijuana? I suppose so. But the fact is that the marijuana was instrumental in the event.

I’m writing about these experiences just as I’ve written about other intense experiences, both good and bad, just because I feel like sharing them for the first time, as my time becomes shorter, I guess. I’m not advocating anyone try marijuana in the hope of having a similar experience. After all, I have only two to report, and it’s not like there’s no such thing as a “bad trip” on marijuana. Also, the marijuana around these days is reportedly a lot stronger than it was back when I smoked it, and I really don’t know whether that makes good or bad experiences more likely. I should distinguish these experiences from the sort which I gather (only from reading, not personal experience) are induced by hallucinogens. Yes, I was stoned, but I was still myself, and I just happened to get lucky, or maybe I should say I received undeserved blessings, which is pretty much the story of our lives, isn’t it?

Tolstoy Brings Another Horseman Down with a Cannonball: More Thoughts on Translation

November 12th, 2016

My last post, “The Sound of a Cannonball to the Gut: A Comparison of War and Peace Translations,” considered several English translations, including my own, from the Russian of a single sentence in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. At the time I wrote it I had no idea that later on in the novel Tolstoy would once again briefly tell of a horseman being hit by a cannonball. As before, when the unfortunate rider was an otherwise unmentioned Cossack, the new victim, a Russian general at the disastrous battle of Austerlitz, plays no dramatic role beyond his cameo appearance as one taking a direct hit to the body by a cannonball while on horseback.

It was the striking description of the first such hit that drew me to look at how different people had translated the passage. I was disappointed in what I found. I thought most of the translations, though giving the basic picture of what had happened, destroyed the effect of Tolstoy’s narrative method and failed to capture the terrible sound of death by cannonball impact.

This post is basically an addendum to the previous one, so I recommend reading that one first. I am not going to go into the earlier description again, though I will have to refer back to comments on the translations now and then. It turns out that the new description clarifies what Tolstoy (and probably the translators) meant in the earlier one.

As before, I am considering five published translations and my own. The 1903 Constance Garnett translation has been the most widely read version. Another by Aylmer and Louise Maude (1922–23) was praised by Tolstoy himself, though I’m not sure how good his English was. The translations by Garnett and the Maudes are in the public domain and widely available. The next chronologically is Ann Dunnigan’s 1968 (Signet) translation. The one by Anthony Briggs (2005) is available in a Penguin edition. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2007) have been translating all the big Russian novels to widespread, if not universal, acclaim. Theirs is published by Vintage Classics. I should add that all but the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation are available in very cheap or free ebook form, whether Kindle, iBook, or Nook.

The scene of the passage considered here is one where remnants of the Russian army, which has been routed, along with its Austrian and German allies, by Napoleon’s army at Austerlitz, are being slaughtered by cannon fire from the heights recently conquered by the French. A general on horseback has just opened his mouth to speak, but before he can, the following occurs, for which I give the original Russian and the six translations to be analyzed. Anyone who compares this passage to the earlier one will note a great deal of similarity.

“Вдруг одно из ядер так низко засвистело над толпой, что все нагнулись. Что-то шлепнулось в мокрое, и генерал упал с лошадью в лужу крови.”

“Suddenly one of the cannon balls flew so low over the heads of the crowd that all ducked. There was a wet splash, as the general fell from his horse into a pool of blood.”

“Suddenly a cannon ball hissed so low above the crowd that everyone ducked. It flopped into something moist, and the general fell from his horse in a pool of blood.”

“Suddenly a cannonball flew so low over the heads of the crowd that everyone ducked. There was a moist plopping sound and the general fell from his horse in a pool of blood.”

“Suddenly a stray cannonball whizzed across so low over the heads of the crowd that everybody ducked. There was a terrible splashing sound and the general fell from his horse in a pool of blood.”

Pevear and Velokhonsky (P & V)
“Suddenly one of the cannonballs came whistling so low over the crowd that everybody ducked. There was a wet smack, and the general and his horse fell in a pool of blood.”

“Suddenly one of the cannonballs whistled so low over the crowd that they all ducked. Something smacked into wet stuff, and the general fell with his horse in a pool of blood.”

There is pretty close agreement on the first sentence except that Garnett and Dunnigan (following Garnett?) omit the sound of the cannonball in flight, just saying that it “flew.” But how did everyone know to duck? Garnett, Dunnigan, and Briggs all say “over the heads of the crowd,” though “the heads of” is not in the Tolstoy. This is further evidence that Dunnigan and Briggs made use of Garnett. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. P & V and I correctly identify the sound of the ball in flight as a whistling. For some reason the Meades now say “hissed” instead of “whistled,” which they used in translating the earlier sentence. Briggs says “whizzed” this time instead of his earlier use of “whoosh” to translate the sound. He also takes the liberty of saying it was a “stray” cannonball. Since the group of soldiers were under continual bombardment (a cannon shot every ten seconds, had been mentioned a little before), I don’t think this insertion of “stray” is justified. The cannons could not be precisely aimed, of course, but the shot that hit the general was no more stray than the ones hitting privates and sergeants in a field of great carnage. Garnett, P & V, and I have kept Tolstoy’s “one of the cannonballs,” which makes the very point that the cannonade was ongoing. Dunnigan and the Meades just say “a cannonball.” Which is fine, but why not follow Tolstoy more closely?

Tolstoy’s description of the sound of the cannonball hitting the general echoes that of the earlier account of a Cossack horseman hit by a ball, which was the subject of my last blog post. It also, I think, clarifies the point I wasn’t clear on—whether the sound Tolstoy imitated (with an onomatopoeic word) was meant to apply to the impact of the ball in the body or the fall of horse and rider. The Russian word could be interpreted either way. Here, there is almost no doubt in my mind. It is the sound of impact. Since the verb (шлепнулось) used here makes the sound of the noun (шлеп) used before, I conclude that the previous smack or slap or flop was the sound of the ball in the Cossack and not the flop of the victims to the ground, though that is not a logical necessity. In the passage considered in my last post, I went with what I thought to be the majority view in interpreting the sound to be applied to the fall. I noted that Briggs’s intention, while not completely clear, probably was to associate the sound with the impact. Brunnigan’s word placement (of “pl-op”) seemed to go with that interpretation as well, but I doubted that was her intent. Now, I think it probably was, since she uses “plopping sound” in translating the passage being considered here, where there is no question in my mind about what the sound is referring to. Although I hadn’t thought of the Meades’ use of “fl-fl-flop” as describing the impact, I now see they use “flopped” here, almost certainly to describe the impact, so they quite possibly meant it that way in the earlier passage.

While I interpreted the “fffflop” sound (as I rendered it) to be that of the crashing horse and rider to the ground, there is nothing to make that the necessary interpretation in my translation any more than there is in Tolstoy’s original Russian or any of the other translations. Since I was the only one translating the earlier passage without the possible benefit of the hindsight to be gained from seeing the general’s fate, I may well have been the only one attaching the sound to the fall except for Garnett. Maybe I should just change mine to “sssslap,” which sounds more like an impact to me and is much closer to Tolstoy’s word.

Let’s look at the how the translators deal with the impact sound this time.

Garnett: “There was a wet splash, as…”

Meades: “It flopped into something moist, and…”

Dunnigan: “There was a moist plopping sound and…”

Briggs: “There was a terrible splashing sound and…”

P & V: “There was a wet smack, and…”

Me: “Something smacked into wet stuff, and…”

Given the way she finishes the sentence with “as the the general fell from his horse into a pool of blood,” Garnett seems to be taking the sound she calls a “wet splash” as being made by the general’s fall into the pool of blood, rather than the sound of the ball impacting his body. I’m almost sure this is wrong. Everyone else, by keeping Tolstoy’s “and” between the sound and the fall, seems to interpret the sound (flop, plop, splash, or smack) as the sound of impact, an event preceding the fall. Considering also the earlier (Cossack) passage, where there is no mention of a pool of blood, I feel confident that Tolstoy here means the impact sound.

Speaking of the previously analyzed passage, I’m happy to note that there is no trace of a “thud” in these translations. Nor is the impact sound said to be from something “soft.” There is no doubt that it’s something juicy being hit this time. The Russian adjective Tolstoy uses here means wet. That is, it’s much closer to the “liquid” of the first described body than “moist,” which is what the Meades and Dunnigan use. Moist is still much better than soft, since one can at least imagine hearing an impact in something moist and thinking “that’s in something moist”.

I don’t like the way the Meades say “It flopped…”, meaning the cannonball, since Tolstoy once again just relates the impact sound without explicitly ascribing it to the cannonball. Of course, it’s the cannonball, but please follow Tolstoy. All the other translators save me use the construction “There was…” a sound of some kind, which they describe in somewhat different ways.

Briggs once again uses “splashing,” which I think can be justified from the verb, but the “terrible” is all his doing. Briggs seems to believe it is the translator’s job to improve on the author’s original, to make the kind of impression on the reader that the translator thinks a passage should make if properly understood. This is very presumptuous when the author is Tolstoy.

The Meades and Dunnigan make the sound of impact too insignificant in my opinion. “Flopped into something moist” and “a moist plopping sound” both sound more like a cherry dropping into a bowl of applesauce than the high-velocity impact of a twelve-pound iron ball into a human body. P & V’s “wet smack” is much better, despite sounding like a sloppy kiss. It gets both the sound of a violent impact and the wet in, though it doesn’t make the penetration (with in or into) explicit.

I realize that my translation—with its “smacked into wet stuff”—is not beautiful, but I’ll make an argument for it. My goal is to stick to Tolstoy as well as I can because I know he chooses his sentences with a purpose. For both of the descriptions of a cannonball hitting a man (Cossack and general) he avoids specifically saying what either the missile or the target is, telling us instead what the sound of impact was like—what hearing it would make the hearer interpret it as being: something smacking into something wet. In the case of the Cossack’s death, Tolstoy uses the word for “something” for the liquid target. In the case of the general’s, he uses the word for the missile, while the target is only designated “wet.” Russian frequently uses an adjective to stand in for a noun having the characteristic indicated by the adjective, and Tolstoy has done that here with the word for wet. I didn’t want to use “something” twice in the same sentence any more than Tolstoy did, which is why I chose “wet stuff,” as the best approximation I could think of. In both cases Tolstoy uses the preposition which can be translated as in or into to make the point that there is a wet substance being penetrated. Only the Meades and I keep this in our translations explicitly, but I think we did well to. “Smack” seems pretty good for the impact sound, as I now understand it. I mentioned it as an alternative in the previous post’s analysis, and I’ve decided to go with it also.

Now let’s deal again with the “from his horse” or “with his horse” question, which came up in the previous post. Although the grammar is the same as before, both Dunnigan and the Meades have gone over to Garnett’s and Briggs’s “from his horse.” P & V, with Russian native-speaker Volokhonsky sticking to the Russian text faithfully, keeps the “with” sense (they say “and”). I am translating it that way too. I have looked at three Russian texts (two electronic, one paper), and they all have the (instrumental case) ending on the Russian word for horse that mandates the preposition be read as with, not from, so I don’t think it’s a typo. Barring evidence that Tolstoy would break this rule (and I have noted places where he has used the genitive case on other nouns following this same preposition to indicate from), I can’t see how the from the horse reading is justified. There is no later mention of the horse, but the same applies to the general. If one cannonball felled both rider and horse in the earlier example, why not again? It’s certainly not essential to the story, but I see the horse going down too.

An extremely meticulous reader of this post might have noticed that in one place I seemed to favor “slap” for the sound and in another “smack.” “Slap” was just so close to the Russian “shlop” that I had to choose it as my substitute word (sssslap, actually) in the sentence translated in the previous post. For this post’s passage I have gone back and forth between “smack” and “slap.” And between “in” and “into,” for that matter. At some point, you just have to go with one.

Finally, I can’t help wondering how these two brief scenes of a cannonball killing a horseman came to be. Since neither advances the story, I have to think that Tolstoy wanted to get the sound of a cannonball hitting a body into the book, as part of the full experience of what warfare of the time was like. But why twice? A plausible scenario (to me, anyway) has the Austerlitz scene being written first, but then being judged insufficiently arresting, coming as it does amidst a scene of widespread death and destruction, near the end of a battle. So the scene with the auditor, a total novice to the sounds of combat, would have been inserted later (but earlier in the book) as the first example of an attack by cannon ball, with the description of the sound as being something totally new, something to be interpreted by the auditor’s mind, and coming out of the blue as the first sounds of a battle just commencing. Even before this, Tolstoy had described the sound of grapeshot through the mind of Nikolai Rostov, who first came under fire on a bridge and heard what seemed like a lot of nuts being scattered on the bridge, followed by the groan of one who’d been hit. Those sounds also stuck in my mind. Assuming Tolstoy has no other cannonball victim further into the book, one that somehow demands discussion, I will have nothing else to say about these translations unless someone points out a blunder of mine too blatant not to correct.

The Sound of a Cannonball to the Gut: A Comparison of War and Peace Translations

October 26th, 2016

My last post was an exercise in closely comparing several English translations of the first sentence of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. I found it enlightening, not having realized just how many subtleties of meaning and chances for mistakes a single short passage could contain. I ended that post saying I might do something like it again. Sooner than I thought, here I am with another sentence analysis, a meatier study in more ways than one. In my current reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in Russian (I’m only about 180 pages into its 1200), I encountered a striking passage in a battle description, which led me to to look at a few English versions to see how it had been rendered by different translators. I saw significant differences, which seemed worth writing about.

This time I am considering three published translations (plus two added at the end) and my own. The oldest English translation of the three is the one done by Aylmer and Louise Maude (1922–23). It is in the public domain and widely available. The next chronologically is by Anthony Briggs (2005), available in the Penguin edition. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2007) have been translating all the big Russian novels to widespread, if not universal, acclaim. Theirs is published by Vintage Classics.

Without going into detail about the part of the book in which the sentence occurs, I’ll set the scene merely by saying that Russian troops fighting a rearguard action in Austria have just come under attack by the French army. Quite implausibly, it seems to me, the commanding general has permitted a curious civil servant, a state auditor, to come ride along the battlefield with military officers to experience firsthand what it was like to be in a battle (an uncommonly dangerous one, at that, given the military situation). At this point in the book I can’t even tell where he is supposed to have come from. The action is occurring in Austria, but the auditor seems to speak Russian. I think the literary purpose of the auditor is to have someone present who is as new to the experience of battle as we the readers are. I should add that I haven’t read much further, so I can’t rule out the auditor’s later having some other role, which more fully explains his unlikely presence.

Right before the passage to be analyzed, the auditor had asked what it was that had just hit the ground ahead of them, and he had been told it was a “French pancake,” a joking way of identifying it as a cannonball shot at them by the French. No mention of the sound accompanying the cannonball’s flight was made at this point, but presumably there had been more than visual evidence of its arrival for the auditor to have noticed it and naively asked what it was. After a few more words were spoken and a description given of what the auditor looked like as he spoke, the following event occurred, for which I first present the Russian text and then the four translations I’m considering.

“Едва он договорил, как опять раздался неожиданно страшный свист, вдруг прекратившийся ударом во что-то жидкое, и ш-ш-ш-шлеп – казак, ехавший несколько правее и сзади аудитора, с лошадью рухнулся на землю.”

He had hardly finished speaking when they again heard an unexpectedly violent whistling which suddenly ended with a thud into something soft . . . f-f-flop! and a Cossack, riding a little to their right and behind the accountant, crashed to earth with his horse.

Hardly were these words out of his mouth when suddenly there came another terrible whoosh ending in a thudding splash into something soft, and with a great squelch a Cossack riding just behind him to the right toppled to the ground from his horse.

Pevear and Volokhonsky (P&V)
He had barely finished speaking when there came again an unexpected, dreadful whistle, suddenly ending in a thud against something liquid, and f-f-flop—a Cossack, riding a little to the right and behind the auditor, crashed to the ground with his horse.

He had barely finished speaking when suddenly again a terrifying whistle was heard, abruptly ending with the sound of a violent impact into something liquid, and fffflop—a Cossack, riding a bit to the right and behind the auditor, crashed to the ground with his horse.

Now let us proceed to examine the translations of this passage phrase by phrase.

Briggs begins with “Hardly were these words out of his mouth…”. Everyone else, including me, says “He had barely [or hardly] finished speaking…”, which is just what the Russian says. I don’t know why Briggs chose to refer to the “these words” instead of the speaker, especially since the immediately preceding sentence talks about the auditor’s appearance, and doesn’t contain the last words he’d spoken at all.

The first cannon ball shot in their vicinity was followed by another, which made itself known by the sound it made flying through the air.

Maudes: ”…when they again heard an unexpectedly violent whistling”

Briggs: ”…when suddenly there came another terrible whoosh”

Pevear and Volokhonsky: ”…when there came again an unexpected, dreadful whistle,”

Me: ”…when suddenly again a terrifying whistle was heard,”

A fair amount of interpretation is required in translating this phrase, but let’s first consider the sound itself. Was it a “whistle” [or “whistling”], or was it a “whoosh”, as Briggs would have it? The Russian word translates as whistle. The word—svist, transliterated—even makes a whistling sound (just as whistle does). A little research online turned up this description of the cannonballs from Napoleon’s guns: “The cannonballs themselves were subsonic, and lobbed slowly through the air, loudly whistling as they approached.” So Briggs’s whoosh (a different sound) is misleading and not true to the reality of battle. By the way, “lobbed slowly” is compared to modern artillery shells. Those cannons had a range of nearly a mile, so the balls weren’t moving slowly by ordinary standards.

Now let’s consider the adverb (неожиданно) rendered as “suddenly” or “unexpectedly” (turned into the adjective “unexpected” by P&V). The word can be translated either way, so we must consider the context. As I see it, when modifying a verb, the word basically corresponds to what we mean in English by out of the blue, which conveys both suddenness and unexpectedness. I checked a number of online Russian language dictionaries, and they had Russian words meaning quickly and suddenly (Быстро, внезапно) as the first definition.

There is not even agreement among our translators as to whether the adverb in question modifies the verb (раздался) coming before it or the adjective (страшный) coming after it in the sentence, however. There is no article in Russian to make the choice unambiguous by preceding or following the adverb. The Maudes say the whistling was “unexpectedly violent.” The Maudes’ interpretation implies to me that a less violent whistling was to be expected. One might argue that, compared to the previous cannonball’s more distant whistling, the new one was unexpectedly violent, but the Maudes say that “they again heard an unexpectedly violent whistling,” as though it were unexpectedly violent for the second time. Or maybe it was just more violent than one could ever expect. But I don’t think the adverb is meant to modify the adjective in this phrase.

Briggs’s rendering of the sudden onset of the sound is similar to mine. We both say “when suddenly.” His “another” and my “again” pretty much convey the same meaning, although my “again” emphasizes the temporal aspect, and his “another” the similarity of the sounds. The other two translators, by using the unexpected interpretation, downplay somewhat the startling effect of the sound, especially P&V, who transform the adverb into an adjective (unexpected) modifying the noun whistle.

Only the Maudes and I actually mention that the whistling missile was heard. The Maudes say “they…heard,” while I, keeping with the passive voice used by Tolstoy, say “was heard.” There’s a difference, and it’s not as though Tolstoy couldn’t have said it the way the Maudes translated it. So I assume he wanted to convey the bursting forth of the sound without the distracting reference to who was hearing it. Below, I will make the point that I think there was one particular hearer Tolstoy had in mind, better left unspecified. Briggs and P&V just say the whistling sound “came,” suddenly in Briggs’s case. P&V don’t exactly say the sound came unexpectedly, just that it was an unexpected sound, which was being repeated.

Was the cannon ball’s sound “violent,” “terrible,” “dreadful,” or “terrifying”? Violent seems to focus more on the physical characteristic of the sound, instead of the feeling it inspired, which the other adjectives point to. To me, terrible and dreadful don’t go far enough, considering the sudden death that the whistling ball could inflict on anyone it hit. I chose terrifying.

Now we come to the part of the passage that struck me so forcefully.

“… which suddenly ended with a thud into something soft…”

“…ending in a thudding splash into something soft,”

Pevear and Volokhonsky
“… suddenly ending in a thud against something liquid,”

“… abruptly ending with the sound of a violent impact into something liquid,”

As I first read (translated) this phrase, it was the “into something liquid” that struck me. What does that mean? What liquid? Horse and rider crash to the ground. Then I remembered how much of our bodies are water. What would a cannonball to the gut sound like? Tolstoy is reporting the sound as he imagined (or perhaps knew from experience or from others’ descriptions) that it would be heard and interpreted by someone, qua sound, before the hearer had had a chance to consider what the impacted liquid might be. The adjective жидкое means liquid, not soft, as Briggs and the Maudes translate it. P&V say liquid, and I note that Volokhonsky is a native Russian speaker. She’s the one of the translating pair that goes through the Russian text first, with Pevear following to polish and clarify her English rendering. Which is to say, I think Volokhonsky is likely to have gotten this word right. I haven’t been able to find any Russian-English dictionary that says the word means soft. Furthermore, the Russian language dictionaries I checked only define it either as liquid (fluid) or as weak or thin, as in watered down.

Briggs gives a nod to the liquid meaning by saying “thudding splash.” Tolstoy did not say splash or describe the actual sound beyond how the hearer interpreted it, however. I don’t know if the sound of a cannon ball hitting flesh or gut would be a splashing sound or not. It’s hitting a body that contains fluids, both in its tissues and, confined within membranes, in organs such as stomach and intestines. It’s not a pleasant thought, but I think Tolstoy means to jar us, as anyone hearing it for the first time would be jarred. In any case, I don’t believe a translator is justified in extrapolating to a very specific descriptive sound like splash when Tolstoy did not write it.

I especially take issue with the use of the word “thud” to describe the impact of the cannon ball on the man’s body. A thud is a loud dull sound, like the sound a heavy book falling flat on a wooden floor makes, to take an example. Hitting a feather bed or a wedding cake or anything else soft (or liquid) does not produce a thud. Thudding splash doesn’t make sense. Thudding “against” makes sense for producing an actual thud, but doesn’t go with the idea of penetration into liquid.

The Russian word in question is удар, which means a blow or violent collision, or the sound produced by such, which is the case here. By no means is thud the required translation of the word. My two Russian-English dictionaries have a couple or three inches devoted to the word in various phrases, and the word thud never appears as the translation. My English-Russian dictionary does not take thud back to удар. What the English translation should be depends on the context. If thud is rejected, what’s the alternative? I chose “sound of a violent impact.” That’s not as succinct, but it’s accurate and gives the reader a chance to take the meaning in. There isn’t always a single word to convey a meaning. Within the sentence, my choice sounds fine to me. I would add that, while I can imagine sounds that would make me think a projectile had penetrated something very juicy, I have trouble thinking of sounds that would make me think one had penetrated something “soft.”

Note that a key word here is the “something” that is impacted whether it’s described as soft or liquid. It is presented this way to express a hearer’s interpretation of an unknown phenomenon, in which something has whistled past and evidently hit something else violently, something liquid. The explanation for the sequence of sounds (and realization of what the impacted “something” was) only comes when the attention turns to the crashing fall of Cossack and horse.

It seems clear to me that there is one particular hearer in whose mind we are placed to hear the sound of impact and whose mind rushed to explain it as “the sound of a violent impact into something liquid” without at first realizing what that something was. Who else but the one who along with us, the readers, had never heard the sound a cannon ball makes upon hitting a human body, probably in the guts?

The auditor! The hearer! To make things clear, I note that the Russian word used for auditor by Tolstoy (аудитор) is really the same as the English word (Latin root, of course), just with a Russian accent. This seems so obvious that it may have been remarked upon before, but I just discovered it on my own, so I’m enjoying it. The Maudes chose to render the word as “accountant”, thus missing the “clue.” Of course, I may find out that later in the book there is some additional need for the civil servant to have been an auditor in order to fulfill some role in his later brief appearance, which I can see is coming by use of the search feature in the iBooks app.

Now we come to the end of the sentence.

“…f-f-flop! and a Cossack, riding a little to their right and behind the accountant, crashed to earth with his horse.”

“… and with a great squelch a Cossack riding just behind him to the right toppled to the ground from his horse.”

Pevear and Volokhonsky
“… and f-f-flop—a Cossack, riding a little to the right and behind the auditor, crashed to the ground with his horse.”

“… and fffflop—a Cossack, riding a bit to the right and behind the auditor, crashed to the ground with his horse.”

Let’s take care of the very last part of the sentence first. Three translators say “crashed to the ground [or earth] with his horse.” The other, Briggs, says “toppled to the ground from his horse.” How do we know which translation is correct? The Russian preposition by itself doesn’t tell us. But the ending of the Russian word for horse in the phrase puts it in the instrumental case, which unambiguously means with his horse. Had it been in the genitive case (different word ending), then from would have been correct. It’s a crashing down and not a mere toppling also. The fact that both man and horse must have been hit by the ball is made clear later, when the auditor sees the Cossack dead and the horse still writhing.

Tolstoy indicates drawn out sounds by repeated letters, separated by hyphens. This is clear from other examples in the book. What does he mean to convey by ш-ш-ш-шлеп? Transliterated, this is shlop (or shlep), with a long drawn-out sh. It has to be the sound of something, but what? Is it also a recognized onomatopoeic word? Is it meant to be the sound of the ball passing through the Cossack’s body or the sound of the crash of horse and rider to the ground? I think the punctuation “…, and shlop—a Cossack…crashed…,” makes it natural to think that shlop is the sound of the crash to the ground. All the translators, except probably for Briggs, I think, have interpreted it that way. But why is it such a drawn out sound? Is the dash meant to indicate that the crash to the ground followed the shlop sound? Knowing what shlop means should help nail the interpretation down.

Is shlop (шлеп) a word in Russian? Neither of the big Russian-English dictionaries I use have it, but they do contain two suggestive verbs and a noun that begin with shlop or schlep. The intransitive verb is translated as to fall with a plop or thud. We seem to be getting close here. Russian language dictionaries online do contain шлеп, and one of the definitions is the sound of such a fall, the other being the sound of a slap or smack. I’m about ready to say the case is closed, but I think there’s still a small amount of room for a different interpretation, which I believe Briggs has made.

Briggs has the Cossack toppling “with a great squelch.” I was not familiar with squelch as a sound. One dictionary defines it as “a squishing noise,” which might suggest that Briggs was talking about the sound of the ball passing through the body. But listen to this other definition I found for squelch: “a sound of or as if of semiliquidmatter under suction — the squelch of mud.” Would a slap or smack describe a squelch? Briggs may well be meaning to express the sound of the ball exiting the body of the Cossack. Can we be sure that Tolstoy didn’t use the drawn out sh to express the passage through the body and the final shlop to be the sound of its emergence on the other side? Squelch doesn’t fit with crashing, or even toppling. So I’m guessing Briggs had in mind the sound of the cannonball emerging from the Cossack, since he has acknowledged the juiciness of the sounds by describing the impact as splashing.

The rest of us decided to interpret the shlop as describing the fall and used an English onomatopoeic single-syllable noun ending in p. The Maudes and P&V presumably mean to use the same convention as Tolstoy for indicating drawn out sounds in writing “f-f-flop.” But to me that looks more like stuttering than drawing out the f. I went with “fffflop,” which I think anyone would interpret as drawing out the f. I was tempted to use fffflump (a dull heavy sound, as of a fall), since flop makes me think of soccer and basketball players flopping. But the rhyme of flop with shlop proved irresistible.

There is a small puzzle associated with this analysis of the sounds. How did the horse get hit too? Did the ball hit it first but only with a glancing blow? Or did it pass through the Cossack and then hit the horse? Since the horse is later seen writhing on the ground, it must have received a substantial hit.

Even if my interpretation of Briggs’s intent is correct and that interpretation of Tolstoy’s scene is correct, I would still find him to be greatly at fault for inserting his own specific description—“splashing thud” and “great squelch”—in place of Tolstoy’s way of presenting the events. It’s as though Briggs views the translator’s job to be rather like that of a writer adapting a novel to a screenplay, in which specific instructions have to be made on sound effects etc. At least the other translators are trying to stick to Tolstoy.

I didn’t have access to the 1903 Constance Garnett translation when I started writing this, but now I do. It has been the most widely read version. I don’t think it’s worth rewriting the phrase-by-phrase analysis to include it, but I will say a few words about it.

“He had hardly uttered the words when again there was a sudden terrible whiz, which ended abruptly in a thud into something soft, and flop—a Cossack, riding a little behind and to the right of the auditor, dropped from his horse to the ground.”

I think Briggs may have consulted the Garnett translation while making his. Garnett also refers to the auditor’s “words,” and she is the only one except Briggs that incorrectly has the Cossack toppling from his horse instead of crashing down with his horse. Briggs also follows Garnett in reversing the order of “to the right and behind” from how it’s written in the Russian. Garnett, like Briggs, also was unaware that cannonballs whistled. She says “thud into something soft,” about which I have already expressed my opinion. I do like her “ended abruptly,” and had already chosen similar wording before I saw hers. As usual, I might add, Garnett’s translation flows well, which is nothing to sneeze at, even when it contains mistakes and deviates from the style of the original.

Now I also have Ann Dunnigan’s 1968 (Signet) translation, which I’ll briefly mention.

“He had hardly uttered the words when again there was the sudden, terrifying whistling sound, abruptly ending with a thud as something soft was struck—pl—op!—and a Cossack riding a little to their right and behind the auditor fell to the ground with his horse.”

Dunnigan probably consulted Garnett’s translation, as her beginning “He had hardly uttered the words when again there was…” is word for word the same (and at variance from the literal Russian). She substitutes “the sudden terrifying whistling sound” for “a sudden terrible whiz.” The “whistling” is an improvement, and she chose “terrifying” and “abruptly ending” just as I did. She also makes it unanimous for the use of thud to describe the ball’s impact sound. Dunnigan, unlike Garnett and Briggs, has the horse correctly falling with the Cossack. Her placement of “pl—op!” makes it seem she intends to associate the sound with the impact rather than the fall, but the word doesn’t fit that interpretation.

About that thud. Is it possible that all the translators considered here just followed Garnett in using this word, thinking perhaps that the common idea of a thud must be too limited? I’m just baffled by splashing thud, thud into something soft, and thud against something liquid. It’s like a placeholder word that never gets replaced. Am I wrong about what a thud is? Cannonballs could literally knock a person’s head off. Are we to suppose they would make a thud against a human body? I think the word thud destroys the intent of the author by introducing an inappropriate sort of sound (one that imparts a note of finality) into the reader’s mind. When followed by “into something soft,” which adds nothing one can imagine hearing, the supposed thud is logically negated, and the reader’s mind must jump to information (soft target) that is not in the domain of the senses, instead of taking in the sound of an “impact into something liquid.”

Now I’m trying to imagine the sound a cannonball hitting me in the breastbone, as opposed to the gut, would make. Wouldn’t that make a loud crack rather than a thud? Even if we could think of a way a cannonball hitting a human being would make a thud, which I doubt, that doesn’t mean that thud should be used in translating this particular sentence. OK, I’ll say no more about it.

Let no one be under the illusion that I spend this much time on every sentence I read. It would take me years to read War and Peace in Russian at that pace, assuming I could ever finish. I read as fast as I can, while always looking up words I don’t know, of which there are almost always several on a page, and trying to make sure I’ve connected the adjectives and pronouns to the right persons etc. I also rely on having translations to refer to. I’d be embarrassed to recount some of the dumb misreadings I’ve made and corrected after consulting a translation made by one of the translators mentioned here. I value their work. Translation is hard! Now I need to get back to my reading before I lose track of who all the many characters in War and Peace are.

You Can’t Judge a Translation by Its First Sentence, Can You?

August 3rd, 2016

A few weeks ago I finished reading Brothers Karamazov in Russian. Only took me a year. But I’m a patient man, never lost the thread, and I was reading a lot faster toward the end. Naturally, I consulted my Russian-English dictionaries constantly. Yesterday, I thought I’d take a look at what kind of selection I’d have had in translation. Below you will see the original Russian, my translation, and five translations in books currently available. I was surprised at what I found just in this first sentence.

My comments follow the selections. [AK] and {FK] stand for the names Alexei Karamazov and Fyodor Karamazov. Initials of translators are used to identify them in the discussion. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that all of these translators know Russian better than I, but I only had one sentence to work on (with their renderings before me), while they had to deal with something over 800 pages. I was able to access some of these translations using the “Look Inside” feature for books on

Dostoyevsky, Russian original
[AK] был третьим сыном помещика нашего уезда [FK], столь известного в свое время (да и теперь еще у нас припоминаемого) по трагической и темной кончине своей, приключившейся ровно тринадцать лет назад

I. Andrew MacAndrew (AM), Bantam
[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner in our district who became a celebrity (and is remembered to this day) because of the tragic and mysterious end he met exactly thirteen years ago

II. Constance Garnett (CG), various editions (public domain)
[AK] was the third son of [FK], a land owner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago

III. David McDuff (DM), Penguin
[AK] was the third son of a landowner in our district, [FK], so noted in his time (and even now still recollected among us) for his tragic and fishy death, which occurred just thirteen years ago

IV.  Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (PV), Farrar, Straus and Giroux
[AK] was the third son of a landowner from our district, [FK], well known in his own day (and still remembered among us) because of his dark and tragic death, which happened exactly thirteen years ago

V. Ignat Avsey (IA), Oxford World Classics
[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner of our district, extremely well known in his time (and to this day still remembered in these parts) on account of his violent and mysterious death exactly thirteen years ago

VI. Me (BE)
[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner of our district who was notorious in his time (and still remembered here even today) for his tragic and murky demise, which occurred exactly thirteen years ago

The first thing I would like to call attention to is that two of the translators (III-DM and IV-PV) follow the word order in the original Russian in the first part of the sentence:

III-DM says “[AK] was the third son of a landowner in our district, [FK], so noted in his time …”,


IV-PV say “[AK] was the third son of a landowner from our district, [FK], well known in his own day …”

I believe this is a case where something is to be gained by changing word order. In the Russian there is no ambiguity about who was “noted” or “well known,” because of the word endings which distinguish the cases. In English, I think there is a slight ambiguity with this order. Is it [AK] who was well known etc. or [FK]? It was certainly [FK], and the other translators change the word order to eliminate or greatly reduce ambiguity.

Perhaps some slight ambiguity remains n V-IA’s rendering, despite the changed word order.

V-IA says “[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner of our district, extremely well known in his time …”

II-CG changes the word order and eliminates the possible ambiguity, but she doesn’t stop there. She alters the sentence further, thereby introducing a problem.

II-CG says “[AK] was the third son of [FK], a land owner well known in our district in his own day,…”

This change by II-CG alters the meaning, restricting the landowner’s notoriety to “our district,” a restriction not found in the Russian, and which, as it turns out in the story, was far from the case. Even without that foreknowledge, the parenthetical mention of [FK]’s memory being alive among the locals, even thirteen years after his death, would seem to imply that his fame has not lasted elsewhere, but had spread beyond his district “in his time.” But this contrast is not present in II-CG’s rendering, which presents [FK]’s fame as a local phenomenon in the first place.

I think the versions of I-AM and VI-BE eliminate the ambiguity without doing any damage in the process.

I-AM says “[AK] was the third son of [FK], a landowner in our district who became a celebrity…”.

I may be making too much of the possible ambiguity of reference in these translations. How many people would be confused? Even more relevantly, how many readers of this first sentence will not already have some knowledge that the story involves the murder of the father of the brothers Karamazov? Still, the fact remains that in the Russian there is no possibility of getting confused about who died, so I think that total certainty should be maintained in the English version, and it’s easy enough to do.

All of the translators, save II-CG, keep the parenthetical remark in parentheses, which brings up another point. The narrator of the novel claims to be someone who was around for the events he describes. Part of the time he is writing as an actual witness. Part of the time he is passing on what he has been told. Part of the time he has completely evaporated to become an implausible “omniscient observer” without a personality, all depending on Dostoyevsky’s whim. But, at the start of the novel, as in the story of the trial, there is no doubt. This is supposed to be a real person, relating a history of events in his district. In that sense, he is a character himself, and his idiosyncratic writing style is something the translation needs to convey. II-CG rides roughshod over this idea.

OK, let’s pick a couple of nits.

I-AM says “… landowner in our district who became a celebrity…”

There’s nothing in the Russian text about becoming. He just was. Celebrity? Maybe, but that makes me think of someone gaining fame while still alive, which isn’t the case here. It also sounds like something more positive than being murdered, probably by your son.

Worse than that, in my opinion, I-AM makes the opposite mistake from II-CG by not implying the ongoing memory of [FK] is restricted to the narrator’s locale.

I-AM just says “(and is remembered to this day)”

All of the other translators restrict the continued memory in some way.

IV-PV say “(and still remembered among us)”, using the same wording as II-CG, but in a way that I think contrasts the local nature of the ongoing memory to the notoriety in [FK]’s time. III-DM uses “among us” also.

V-IA goes even further in stating the local nature of the memory by saying “(and to this day still remembered in these parts).”

I suppose the Russian “у нас” could mean among us Russians, not just those of us “in these parts,” but I think the fact that the ongoing memory is placed in parentheses argues for the local memory interpretation. I went with “here,” which is similar to “in these parts,” but with room for a bigger “here.”

Now we’ve come to the phrase that every translator rendered differently, describing the reason for [FK]’s notoriety. Here they are:

I-AM “because of the tragic and mysterious end he met”

II-CG “owing to his gloomy and tragic death”

III-DM “for his tragic and fishy death”

IV-PV “because of his dark and tragic death”

V-IA “on account of his violent and mysterious death”

Vi-BE “for his tragic and murky demise”

First let me note that all of the translators save one include “tragic” as one of the adjectives. V-IA chose “violent” to render that word. I’m sure he would make a case for for it, but based on the narrator’s choice of a word (трагической) that cries out to be translated “tragic,” instead of other available words he could have chosen to say violent, I can’t accept it. I think “tragic” conveys the idea of suddenness, and the notoriety already mentioned would lead a reader to guess it was not an ordinary accidental death. There is also the factor of maintaining the narrator’s voice to be considered. He said tragic. Beyond that, the story of Dmitri Karamazov can only be seen as a tragedy, notwithstanding the attempt to mitigate it in the epilogue, so [FK]’s death was especially tragic for Dmitri.

The other adjective (темной) is subject to interpretation. It indicates a lack of light or clarity, literally or figuratively. Four translators, taking into account the details of the story, chose a word that carries the notion of uncertainty in the circumstances of [FK]’s death, which was indeed what gave it such widespread interest. “Fishy” it was, but somehow that word just doesn’t sound right to me. “Mysterious” to me introduces the notion of there being doubt as to what caused the death, which was not the case, the only thing in question being the identity of the murderer. I submit that “murky” is perfect, given the uncertainty in the details of the murder, and I expect all future translations to use it (no royalties required).

“Gloomy” is terrible in my opinion. What makes a violent death gloomy? “Dark” is not as bad, and it carries with it the idea of an evil deed, but it does miss the notion of uncertainty which all the other translators picked up on. It is perhaps not a coincidence that these two translations felt the need to invert the Russian word order, making “tragic” come last. Maybe “tragic and dark” and “tragic and gloomy” would have left the weakness of dark and gloomy more exposed.

Four translators note that [FK]’s death occurred “exactly thirteen years ago.” III-DM says “just” instead of “exactly.” I assume he meant that to be the equivalent, but “just thirteen years ago” is more likely to be interpreted as “only thirteen years ago,” which wasn’t meant, as far as I can tell. II-CG just ignores the word, thus modifying the narrator’s voice once more.

Finally there is the word most translators rendered as “death.” I-AM chose “end,” and VI-BE chose “demise.” Obviously, they all leave [FK] dead as a doornail, but I would argue that “demise” is best in keeping with the narrator’s voice, just based on the evidence of my Russian dictionaries. The Russian word is translated “demise” in both my dictionaries, not “death.” My English to Russian dictionary maps “demise” back to the Russian word in question, but not to the usual word for death. There are other words the narrator could have chosen, and I think he characteristically chose the one we call demise.

I would not have imagined that translations of a single opening sentence would have so many differences. I also hadn’t thought about all the ways a translation could go wrong, especially in subtle ways. It was fun to compare the translations and try to better them. I have a feeling I may do some more of it.

A Short Tale of Twitter Hostility with a Glimmer of Hope

March 25th, 2016

I imagine just about everyone has at least heard of Twitter and has probably heard it can be a pretty nasty place, where people exchange insults and incite others to join in hateful online attacks on their adversaries. I’ve seen the transcripts of some ugly interactions. But my Twitter community is quite civil, and I don’t go looking for trouble. Recently I got involved in a relatively small tussle, though, and I’m sharing the story in this post. If you’re not on Twitter, it may not make sense to you without some explanation of how Twitter works, so I’ll start with that. If you don’t need it, you can skip the next four paragraphs.

I have a Twitter account, which allows me to post short—140-character maximum length—messages (called tweets) to the “twittersphere.” I also “retweet” (RT), i.e., pass on others’ tweets that I think worthy of note, though—as many say in their Twitter bios—“RT doesn’t = endorsement.” I used to sometimes mark tweets as “liked,” until Twitter changed the star that indicated a like into a red heart, which I refuse to use. Everything I tweet is public. Anyone, even someone without a Twitter account, can go to my Twitter page and read all my tweets. So a person’s tweets are essentially posts on a miniblog. This is true for anyone on Twitter that hasn’t opted for a private xanax account, which is not the norm and sort of defeats the purpose.

Tweets are of three types. There are tweets with no particular reader in mind. There are retweets (RT). And there are tweets addressed to particular persons. Everyone on Twitter is identified by a Twitter handle that starts with the @ character, as well as by a name, which may or may not be the person’s real name. If a tweet is meant for someone in particular, then it will begin with that person’s Twitter handle (@that_particular_person). While I can go to anyone’s Twitter page and read all their recent tweets, there is a better way to follow what they’re tweeting, namely to “follow” them. This is basically subscribing to their tweets, which will automatically appear, along with the tweets of all those I follow, in my Twitter timeline, as they are tweeted, most recent on top. Anyone can follow anyone else (not private) on Twitter, excluding the case where one user has blocked another. On Twitter I’m @onscrn. (Feel free to follow.) Not everyone I follow follows me, and vice versa.

All tweets that aren’t addressed to anyone in particular will be automatically seen by the tweeter’s followers. A tweet addressed to @addressee will appear in the timeline of @addressee whether or not @addressee follows the tweeter. Don’t count on @POTUS actually reading your tweets, but they will be delivered to his Twitter timeline. If anyone mentions @onscrn in the text of a tweet, I also get notified about that. Probably the main way a tweet directed to a particular person gets sent is when someone chooses to reply to a tweet. That automatically puts the Twitter handle of the person whose tweet is being replied to at the beginning of the reply. If someone replies to a RT, then the both @original_tweeter and @retweeter are addressed in the reply. The address part with the @ can always be edited before the tweet is sent. If a reply is made to a tweet that was addressed to two people, then the reply tweet goes to the sender of the tweet and the other recipient tramadol of the tweet being replied to. It’s like a reply-all email. I mention these details to make sense of the Twitter exchanges below.

If you’re particularly interested in some subject or event, you can search for it on Twitter via keywords (or “hashtags” marked with #). This is a search of the vast ocean of tweets. In this way you can find tweets that contain these keywords tweeted by people you have no prior knowledge of. You can read the tweet, and you can go check out the authors of the tweets, see all of their recent (valium) tweets.

Below, I’m using Twitter handles of @protrump (a woman in Texas, according to that Twitter account’s bio) and @antitrump for the people involved, while keeping my own name of @onscrn. There didn’t seem any point in using the others’ real Twitter names, since the story doesn’t depend on who they are exactly.

One thing that has especially disturbed me about Donald Trump’s campaign is how casually he can speak of murder, which I’m pretty sure is a first for Presidential candidates, and which is enough, by itself, to convince me that I really don’t want to see this man in a position of governmental power. I’m assuming my original tweet, which started the interactions, was the one that follows, though I can’t be sure because @antitrump retweeted a couple of others.

ME: “Why does Trump keep saying he could murder someone & not lose support? Not bothered by Putin’s murders. Gave Kim Jong-un credit for murders.”

Since @antitrump wasn’t following me, he would have seen my tweet only as a result of searching on Twitter for “Trump”. I assume @protrump wasn’t following @antitrump on Twitter, so she would have also come across his RT by virtue of a search. In both cases, they would have had a whole lot of tweets to read through, as Trump is undoubtedly one of the most frequently used words on Twitter.

@protrump saw at least one of @antitrump’s retweets from me about Trump and responded. So both I and @antitrump had this tweet from @protrump show up in our Twitter feed:

PRO-TRUMP: “@onscrn @antitrump Oh shut the hell up. It was a metaphor.”

I guess I’ve been lucky, but that was the first out-of-the-blue aggressive tweet I’ve ever had directed at me, so it was a bit startling. It was nothing compared to the rather disturbing vile insult thrown at me years ago in the comment section of someone’s blog, which had linked to my blog post, written at the time of Obama’s first inauguration, about the depth of racism in the recent past: “Thoughts of Water on the Eve of Obama’s Inauguration” . That comment was evidently from a virulent racist. Blog comment sections are well known for bringing out the worst in people, or attracting the worst people. I don’t have a comment section on my blog.

Anyway, the next tweet I saw in this exchange was from @protrump, but it was preceded by a response by @antitrump just to @protrump, of which I was unaware at the time. I think @protrump would have had to explicitly include me as an addressee in her response, so it was probably directed to me as well as @antitrump.

ANTI-TRUMP: “@protrump Same with punching protester in face, or megyn kelly’s ‘whatever’, or fiorina’s ‘persona’ .. He likes (is) despots”

PRO-TRUMP: “@antitrump @onscrn Who cares?  Grow a set you delicate little flower”

Then came this reply (in which I am clearly just being CCed):

ANTI-TRUMP: “@protrump @onscrn speaking of flowers, don’t u have weeding to do in the tub outside ur trailer?”

Now, admittedly @protrump had insulted us (as unmanly, presumably in contrast to Trump), in her “grow a set” response. But that was at least somewhat generic and based on an insulting interpretation of why we’d failed to appreciate Trump’s murder references. @antitrump’s retort was thoroughly ad hominem and based on a stereotype of what a Trump supporter is like. Beyond that, it showed a contempt for such people (poor, White, uneducated, non-coastal) as being the only members of our society who can be insulted for being who they are without violating the code of political correctness. I think there’s a good deal of truth in this analysis of Trump’s appeal by Clive Crook: “Donald Trump, Class Warrior”

For good measure, @antitrump added this.

ANTI-TRUMP: “@protrump @onscrn dont worry #trump loves the poorly educated.. They’re loyal. [link to picture of a cartoon dog]”

I didn’t want to be part of this, so I just tweeted to the two of them:

ME: “@protrump @antitrump Leave me out of this. I’m not getting into any personal insult contest.”

Right away, @protrump responded in agreement.

PRO-TRUMP: “@onscrn @antitrump Deal.”

And @antitrump both retweeted and “liked” my tweet.

I was kind of surprised. Is it that easy? As far as I can tell, @protrump and @antitrump also ceased firing at each other. So, I think they were open to a call to end hostilities, maybe even relieved to have an end. These interchanges were actually pretty mild compared to many that happen, but they were bad enough for me. I’d like to think I’d called them to their better selves, but I’m not fooling myself into thinking they’ve abandoned the fray. Totally missing from these exchanges was any attempt to change the mind of the other person, or of anyone sharing that person’s opinion who might have seen the tweets, so I can’t help feeling that the sole motivation was the desire for combat against representatives of the “other side,” to whom no amount of respect was due. This is a temptation that should be resisted. It’s Good Friday. Love your enemies. It doesn’t require agreement.

The Most Shocking News I Ever Heard

February 16th, 2016

I recently had occasion to read an old blog post of mine called The Second Most Important Event in My Life, which is about my suddenly becoming aware, during a high school physics demonstration, that there was a deep mathematical order to the world, of which I had had cialis no inkling before. That blog post begins: “Excluding from consideration my birth, the two most important events in my life have been moments in which I have suddenly and for the first time become fully aware of something fundamental and wonderful about reality which has permanently changed my perception of the world.”

Perhaps it was the reading of that sentence that has brought to mind another experience of sudden revelation about the world, one less spiritual and intellectual, which occurred years before the others, but which was also stunning in the degree to which it transformed my xanax world view.

When I started school at the age of six in a small Texas town, many years ago, my knowledge of procreation was limited to the fact that a baby somehow grew inside its mother (in the stomach, I believe I was told) until it was ready to be born, and that marriage was the necessary and sufficient condition for a man and woman to become potential parents. If this connection between marriage and pregnancy puzzled me, I don’t remember it. I was a child, after all, and one that trusted what adults said more than the average perhaps. I do recall, upon hearing about a child being born to unmarried parents, saying I didn’t believe that was possible. I imagine I got the runaround if I tried to get to the bottom of this anomaly.

One of the things I soon learned in first grade (I didn’t go to kindergarten) was that children had a secret society that grownups didn’t know about, or if they did, they at least must never be allowed to see any of the society’s activities; because, either way, grownups were sure to severely punish the society’s members. There were new words to be learned like “fuck” (Or was it “fulk”? I wasn’t sure.) and a secret hand sign, called giving the finger, that I had to learn through practice. We must never let grownups hear us say these words or see us make the sign. They were dirty or nasty, whatever that meant.

This sudden entrance into an underground dual existence of a sort was somewhat troubling, but I did not want to be excluded from it, or be punished for living in it. I should add that, as far as I knew at the beginning, this was a society of boys, because our recesses were segregated by sex, boys on one side of the playground, girls on the other. And it was at recess that the secret society became open to new members. I should also add that I’m speaking of a secret society just to convey its status, as I saw it, with respect to grownups. There was nothing formal about joining it. There was just an oral passing on of lore gained from older siblings, accompanied by the grins that came with the pleasure of demonstrating knowledge of the forbidden. My memory is of gaining this new incomplete knowledge from other first graders, as there was no mixing of grades on the playground, though the whole school had the same recess period. I seem to remember learning the middle finger sign in the center of the playground’s merry-go-round, the inner part where you push on the radial bars to propel it into motion. I imagine there must have been boys that could have defined what fuck meant, but I did not want to show my ignorance, so I would never have asked. It was only over a fairly long time (years?) that I came to have near certainty, but not quite complete certainty, about what was entailed in the act of fucking.

At some point, I also learned that there were men and women who actually engaged in this activity, which was so taboo that its very existence mustn’t be acknowledged. What perversity possessed them to do this, I couldn’t imagine. I had not picked up the idea that it was supposed to be very pleasurable, which would make it tempting. Nor had I connected it in any way to the interest I and my male friends had in seeing (even collecting) pictures of good-looking women prednisone without much clothing on. This was an instinct without an object, as yet. We had no access to any kind of “girlie” magazines, so I assume we just found underwear ads and such. This was also an underground activity, of course.

It turned out that there were also girls in our kids’ secret society of dirty words and knowledge. The telling of “dirty jokes,” half of which I didn’t really get, became a relished pastime for neighborhood boys and girls. We would sit on the ground or floor in a circle and retell such classics as “Johnny Fuckerfaster” or pass on new ones heard outside the current circle. I lived on one side of a one-story apartment building with a hallway down the middle. I remember participating in joke sessions in that hallway and holding hands with Dot, a neighbor from across the hall there. I think the main pleasure in these joke-telling sessions was the forbidden-fruit secrecy, which carried a certain status of mature-beyond-our-years exclusiveness in our eyes. I’m pretty sure that not everyone, especially not all the girls in my class, were engaged in dirty joke telling. I don’t remember feeling very guilty about it. It was just one of the secret pleasures of childhood. That was the limit of how dirty I would ever get. Jokes about it were one thing. Actually doing it? Unthinkable! I had a crush on Dot, but it had nothing to do with the subject of our jokes, or so I thought.

Sometime when I was probably in the third of fourth grade I heard something very disturbing about one of my classmate’s parents from a friend. He told me that the classmate had told him how he had been asleep in the same bed as his parents and had awakened to find them fucking! I was shocked to hear that someone I knew had parents that had committed this unspeakable act. I felt sorry for him. I never said anything to him about it, of course, and I have no memory of who it was. I’m sure it wasn’t a close friend though, or I would remember.

So that was the way I understood and viewed sexual matters. The topics were fun to discuss and joke about, a way to demonstrate how mature I was compared to children that knew nothing of this stuff and were excluded from what we’d call the cool kid circle today. I was not tempted to do anything beyond kissing with a girl, an activity that had no connection with that other thing, the dirty thing we called fucking. I’m not sure we were even aware of the word sex as having a meaning related to that thing.

Then one day, again in the third or fourth grade, out of the blue, I heard the truth. Our apartment had a driveway beside it that led to a garage. Another set of garages for other apartments in the cluster was farther back from the house, and we kids of the apartments would climb up on the roofs of the garages sometimes. We climbed a lot, so there was nothing unusual about my being on one of the garage roofs. What was less usual was that I was there with a girl a little older than I, who probably lived in one of the other apartments for a short time. I can’t remember her name or anything else about her except that she was on that roof with me on the day I’m thinking of and that I guess I knew her pretty well or we wouldn’t have been there together, just the two of us. She had news. I’m almost sure this was news she had just received herself and which she couldn’t wait to spread. She told me that babies were conceived by the parents fucking. This was a stupefying announcement, and I objected to it. It was unbelievable. She was certain. Her source was someone who would know. My world spinning, I had to accept that this startling assertion about what all parents—including my own!—had done in order to have children was true. Perhaps the story of the classmate seeing his parents in the act came to mind with a new interpretation.

One of the most important facts of human existence had been unknown to me until that day. The news couldn’t have been more unexpected. I had absolutely no idea. I wonder how many people have a memory of when they learned “the facts of life”? Maybe today most kids just sort of know from an early age through actual school sex education.

Of course, the new knowledge not only made me look at my parents in a new way, it changed how I had to look at my own future. What had been unspeakably vile must now be considered perfectly normal. That was quite a jump. It was not that grownups had directly given me my view of sexual activity as alien to decent people. It was the avoidance of the subject by grownups and my coming to hear of it as a very secret, extremely naughty topic that had formed that strong impression.

As usual with these old memories of mine, I don’t know what came next. How long did I and my revealer of the truth stay on the roof? Did we discuss the philosophical and practical implications of this knowledge? Did I ever see this girl again? I think I must have told others not yet in the know (my sister?), but I have no memory of their reactions or even of my telling them. Perhaps you are the first to hear this story.

On the Naming of Sports Teams IV: Native American Team Names & What to Do About the Redskins

November 13th, 2014

I have left the teams named for Native American warriors and tribes for this separate post, instead of including them in the earlier one on warriors and local groups, to which the names logically belong, because there are special questions raised about the propriety of such names. The three previous posts in this series are On the Naming of Sports Teams I: Animals & Birds; II: Non-Indian Warriors & Groups with Local Associations; and III: Colors, Abstractions, & Inanimate Objects.

Except for the rare collegiate self-mocking name, it should be evident that, despite the evidence of some bad choices, no one deliberately chooses a sports team’s name to bring scorn and contempt on the team, rather the opposite. So the question is not of a deliberate attempt to disrespect or ridicule Native Americans, even for the worst of the lasix names, Redskins.

There are not as many team names falling into the Native American category as there used to be. Stanford, Dartmouth, and U of Massachusetts are among those having made name changes. Others have kept names but eliminated Native American images and sideline performers. Wikipedia has a good article (at least as I write, it does) “Native American mascot controversy” on the topic.

There was no denying the valor of Native American warriors. So, even as Native Americans were pushed out of their homelands by force of arms, with great suffering and loss of life, they gained respect, even admiration, for their “savage” bravery and warcraft. Thus the many teams that chose Native American names in the past. I understand the argument against these names, but I can’t help feeling that eliminating them would contribute to our forgetting the heroism of the Native American resistance.

Here is the breakdown for this final team name category, with an example of each.

10. Native American warriors and tribes

(A) general: Chiefs
(B) tribal / local: Seminoles
(C) racial: Redskins

To 10A belong the Golden State Warriors, Atlanta and Bradley Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, William & Mary Tribe, and Cleveland Indians. Personally, I think these names are as acceptable as Spartans or Minutemen, though I have to admit they may invite some fans to don unfortunate Indian costumes. But must we outlaw Indian costumes at Mardi Gras and Halloween? I think football game face-painting etc. (which is not confined to teams with Native American names) is something we can tolerate, just as we tolerate identifying teams with fierce animals. There’s something a little primeval about it, but perhaps better not suppressed.

Tribal or local names (10B) include Florida State Seminoles, Central Michigan Chippewas, Utah Utes, Chicago Black Hawks, and San Diego State Aztecs. The Fighting Illini of Illinois used to be counted in this category, since Illinois was named for the Illiniwek tribal group and the school used an Indian chief with full headdress as its symbol for many years, as well as having an Indian-garbed mascot at games. Those images have been banished, and the claim is made that Fighting Illini referred to Civil War soldiers from Illinois originally, anyway, which would belong in 4B. Most of these remaining names are probably in danger. Although the opinion that they are insulting or, at the very least unacceptably insensitive, is not the majority one, it is strongly held. Florida State would seem to be in a pretty strong position for defending its name since the Seminole tribe of Florida likes ambien it. The same can be said about the Utes and the Chippewas.

The Aztecs aren’t exactly around to weigh in of the San Diego State name, but it almost escapes the Native American category by not belonging to a group within the USA. It’s more like Trojans or Spartans in belonging to a distant past. The strong association of the Aztecs with human sacrifice and cannibalism, however, makes the name problematic for me.

The Chicago Black Hawks (NHL) name might sound like it belongs to 1A with the birds of prey, but the team logo depicts a Native American in profile, and the team is evidently named for an Indian chief called Black Hawk. Having everybody called by one man’s name doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like calling a Memphis team the Elvises. Well, maybe when Black Hawks is taken to mean everyone on the team has adopted Black Hawk’s totem animal it’s marginally OK.

There is really only one team name in the category that explicitly points to race, 10C—the Washington Redskins. Whatever its problems, the Redskins name clearly would fit into one of the fierce historical fighter categories, as would all the other Indian-derived names would. Going only by the name, I’d have assumed Redskins would have gone into the ruthless raider subcategory 3B. Based on the reference to scalping in the original version of the team’s fight song, I think this was the intent. However, the team logo is similar to the dignified face in profile that was seen on the Indian-head nickel. It doesn’t promote a blood-thirsty image at all. I take the team owner at his word that he views the name in a positive light that honors the valor of the Native American warrior. Unless one takes the position that Native American images cannot be considered for sports team logos period, the logo seems fine. But what about the name? It’s different from all the other existing names with a Native American zithromax theme, in its reference to skin color.

It should be acknowledged that red has traditionally been used to designate the skin color of Native Americans, just as yellow has been for that of the Chinese. When Jesse Jackson spoke of creating a Rainbow Coalition he said “Our flag is red, white, and blue, but our nation is a rainbow—red, yellow, brown, black, and white.” He was certainly not meaning to offend anyone, on the contrary. I don’t recall anyone objecting. The point I’m making is that, however inaccurate using red for skin color is and how unnecessary it is to even use a color, it has been the standard, unthinking shorthand way of identifying Native Americans. Given that, I think the Redmen (U of Massachusetts and St. John’s) name was almost as defensible for a team name as Indians, when it was first used, but it’s just as well that it is gone. Incidentally, the Cleveland Indians logo, which is the red-as-a-lobster cartoon face of “Chief Wahoo,” really needs to be discarded, and that minimal act of respect wouldn’t require renaming the team.

But back to the Redskins name. It’s not enough to sincerely say you don’t mean the name in an offensive way. The historical usage and racial emphasis cannot be wished away. Forty years ago, before there was any controversy that I was aware of, an Austin poet pointed out to me, with a poet’s concision, that the name Washington Redskins was like Birmingham Niggers. This was shocking and, I realized upon reflection, basically true, though I hadn’t thought of it that way before then.

Redskins was a term of racial contempt applied by Whites to the native peoples of North America within the shameful historical context of getting them out of the way. The term emphasized the otherness, and implicitly the inferiority, of the Native Americans, and surely played its part in maintaining the mind-set that could justify their cruel prednisone treatment. We can’t forget the genocidal phrase: “The only good Injun is a dead Injun.”

The word Redskins, although it may have been used without thought or conscious prejudice in the past, is not uttered by any halfway sensitive person these days except in the context of NFL football. The name Redskins has to go, and it will go sooner or later. I want to propose a compromise solution, which means it will not satisfy anyone who has a strong position for keeping things just as they are or for eliminating all Native American associations with the team. It is meant as a compromise with a certain naturalness to it, given the team’s location in our nation’s capital. Who knows, maybe it will remind the politicians there what compromise for the common good is.

One step away from Redskins would be Indians, but that would not be far enough for the most adamant objectors to the current name, and there is a baseball team with the name already. Native Americans? That has become the political correct term, even though a considerable number of the persons to whom it applies still prefer to go by American Indian. Some who oppose the current name would strongly object, and defenders of the current name might feel moved to make a death struggle against political correctness and save the name Redskins. In any case, Native Americans can be thrown out as a name for having too many syllables, without considering it further. I don’t think anyone would suggest Senators or Congressmen, speaking of not wanting a name that’s widely held in contempt.

Here is my two-part proposal. First, keep the current logo (hopefully making the skin color a bit more realistic). Second, change the name to Washington Americans.

Keeping the logo (and the team should get rights to that as a trademark, which has been called into question recently, as a way of pressuring the team to change the name) would minimize damage to the value of the franchise and to the psyche of fans who see the logo as representing a team they support and have supported, some of them, for their whole conscious lives. Yes, many would persist in calling the team the Redskins, singing Hail to the Redskins, and bringing signs to games with the word Redskins on them, but so what? The official name, the name used in accounts and discussions of the team on national tv and press would be Americans. Over time, no one would be using the name Redskins. Those who believe no team should have a Native American image to represent it could continue that battle and perhaps try to confiscate all the Indian-head nickels while they’re at it. Sticklers for Native American usage could call the team the Washington Native Americans if they wanted to, though I don’t think that would be very widespread.

I see the combination of the name Americans with the Native American image for the team logo as a way of honoring the first Americans. Would Native Americans be offended instead of feeling honored? My guess is that most would not, but that could be part of the debate before the new name was adopted. As a name for a team in Washington DC, I think Americans is better than Nationals, using an actual noun to express more of less the same thing. The name Americans is proud, tough, and patriotic. Problem solved.

On the Naming of Sports Teams III: Colors, Abstractions, & Inanimate Objects

October 22nd, 2014

This is the third installment in my series of four posts on sports team naming. What nearly all the names in this post have in common is that they are not based on identifiable creatures that have ever walked the Earth, not on man nor beast. Those names either have no meaning outside the context of the team (Athletics, Astros) or refer to phenomena, abstractions, or objects that can’t be easily related to the human activity of sports competition (Hurricanes, Magic, Spurs), if at all.

In place of names like those considered in the previous posts (On the Naming of Sports Teams I: Animals & Birds, On the Naming of Sports Teams II: Non-Indian Warriors & Groups with Local Associations), which link a team to a species or historical group, thus implicitly allowing for the existence of individual personalities of the team members, some of these team names present monolithic regional symbols or indivisible abstractions. They conflate team loyalty with brand loyalty. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that most of the worst names are relatively recent ones given to professional teams formed in league expansion.

Evidently, the human mind can adjust to having a baseball team named for a mountain range (Rockies), even though it jars logic to think of the individual players as mountains, a paradigm of immobility. And a musical genre (Jazz), an abstraction which cannot logically be broken into parts for connecting to individual persons, presumably serves well enough as a team name, or at least as a placeholder for one. Still, I can’t help thinking that these illogical and homogenized names are like a background noise that one adjusts to, but which nonetheless causes ongoing psychic stress.

Let me put it this way: these team names are not of anything a child could pretend to be in play. Well, Marcel Proust, who might for a brief period of confusion at the edge of sleep imagine himself to be a string quartet, possibly could, but not an ordinary child. Would any child pretend to be a nugget, a spur, or a hurricane? These names are not play-worthy. That makes them, in my mind, unworthy of serving as a team’s name, and I’m glad to have hit upon the perfect criterion by which to judge whether a name is even worth considering.

Here are my proposed categories for the rest of the non-Indian team names. As with the earlier categories, there are some names that could fit into more than one category and some that don’t fit well into any of them, but which aren’t worth a new category. I give but one example for each subcategory in the listing, but mention more in the discussion that follows.

6. Colors

(A) plural (Reds)
(B) singular (Crimson)
(C) uniform identifiers (Red Sox)

7. Manufactured names

(A) adjectives as nouns (Athletics)
(B) local contrivances (Expos)
(C) abstractions (Magic)
(D) meaningless names (Hokies)

8. Forces of nature

(A) emphasizing the collective (Crimson Tide)
(B) weather phenomena (Lightning)
(C) destructive phenomena viewed as individuals (Hurricanes)

9. Inanimate objects

(A) associated with speed (Rockets)
(B) associated with location (Buckeyes)
(C) others (Nets)

In addition to names, all teams have at least one identifying color, which the team members and many fans wear or otherwise display. It is a secondary way of identifying with the team. Fans and followers of the teams may identify with the colors as much as with the names, and in some cases the team is just named after one of its colors. I think the naming of a team for a color has a quasi concreteness about it, because it is directly tied to the team without an intervening image or abstract mental excursion. In politics, if we hear Greens or Reds, we have an immediate idea of the group, and I think the same is true for teams named for colors.

Team names designated by color (6A) include the Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Blues, Cleveland and (in the past) St. Louis Browns. The choice is one with ancient roots: chariot teams of Rome were identified by color, since it was the only way to tell them apart at a distance. The St. Louis Blues NHL team name is kind of a pun with a local reference, because of a famous song, but I’m calling it a color, which saves it from the abstractions category 7C, into which its kindred name Utah Jazz has been placed.

I had thought Harvard Crimson was the only team named for a singular color (6B), which abstractly emphasizes the group rather than its members. It’s different from Alabama’s Crimson Tide, where crimson modifies the noun representing the team. But as I wrote this, I discovered that Stanford goes by Cardinal, another shade of red that sounds derivative, but seems not to be, at least not completely. I had known that Stanford’s Cardinal referred to the color, as opposed to the bird, but I’d thought Stanford used the plural Cardinals. The old Stanford name Indians was nixed in 1972 as offensive, and I just saw on Wikipedia that they used the plural version Cardinals until the singular Cardinal was made the name by school president fiat. It does look a little like wanting to step into an elite circle of two with Harvard, but maybe it was only to get rid of the bird name confusion. I note that North Texas, though nominally still going by the name Eagles, has pretty much joined the singular color club with Harvard and Stanford, but with an adjective meant to be intimidating: Mean Green.

Teams identified by the color of their “Sox” (Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox) are really a variation on the team color category 5A, but with concrete imagery. There is some confusion about this, though, as an individual Boston player may be called by some a Red Sock, or even self-identify that way, as though the name belonged to the inanimate object category 9C. I think the absurdity of that image makes the point rather well that this is a team color name. The Cincinnati Reds were known for a time as the Cincinnati Redlegs, an awkward name chosen not for concreteness but to avoid the association with Communism that “Reds” evoked. Red Sox was already taken, and the old Red Stockings name probably sounded too effeminate, so they went with Redlegs from 1953 to 1959. This was such an unattractive name that it’s hard to believe they actually used it, but this was the time of “better dead than red,” so having an ugly name was a comparatively minor sacrifice.

It was a tough call whether to put the Detroit Red Wings name in 6C or 7D (for meaningless names), but since the wings are on the team uniforms, and the color is an essential part of the name, I decided to put it into the group with Red Sox.

Included in the names that are pluralized adjectives (7A) are the Oakland Athletics, Boston Celtics, Kansas City Royals, and Washington Nationals. The Oakland team uses a totem-animal elephant identifier as well, since there really isn’t any way to depict an “Athletic”. Royals actually could be considered a noun directly, as those of royal blood are called that. But I’ve already refused in the previous post to make a special category for kings. However dubious a grammatical practice this turning of adjectives into nouns may be, it’s clear these names are meant to apply to individual human beings, the players on the team, supposedly endowed with the characteristics specified in the name. These characteristics are more abstract than the wearing of a certain uniform item, but the principle of self-referential naming applies.

The locally contrived names (7B), which include Montreal Expos (in the past), Houston Astros, and Washington Capitals, go a step beyond the association of team members with defining characteristics to assigning them membership in nonexistent local groups. Still, the names are meant to apply to individual human beings. The problem with these names is that it’s even harder to picture them than those of 7A.

The MLB Expos of Montreal were an egregious example of the contrived local name category. Yes, there was a Worlds Fair in Montreal once, called the Expo, but it is ridiculous to call baseball players Expos. A worlds fair cannot be personified. The MLB Houston Astros also come to mind. There is no such thing as an Astro. It’s a prefix. I know Houston has a NASA Center, but this was a bad choice.

Washington Capitals? There is one national capital, and it’s a city. This name almost made it into the category of nonsensical names along with Suns, another unique thing used in the plural, but since it makes up a name (as applied to hockey players) with a tight local connection, I think the locally contrived name category is fitting.

Names that are abstractions include Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, Utah (formerly New Orleans) Jazz, New England Revolution, and Minnesota Wild. These are names that clearly have no intention of providing a way to visualize an individual team member from the team’s name (with the possible exception of the Revolution). This kind of name is my least favorite. I’m afraid I would ban them if I had the power as a league commissioner.

Jazz started out as at least a local reference in New Orleans, but makes no sense at all in Utah. Heat might arguably be placed in the weather phenomenon category 8B. Heat Wave would be, but Heat by itself is just too vague. It really only serves to suggest an unpleasant, inescapable experience, which is perhaps why the name has also been used as a slang term for the police (like Fuzz). I could live with Magicians, might even set up a special category for them with the Wizards, but Magic is the very worst team name of all.

I’m putting the New England Revolution in with the abstractions as well. As opposed to the Patriots and Minutemen names, which refer to individuals joined by a common name because of their making history together in a common cause, Revolution refers to a historical event or process, which in a sense stands above the participants. The Revolution name is much like the forces of nature names of category 8A.

Among names I call made-up and meaningless (7D) are Virginia Tech Hokies, Texas Tech Red Raiders, Buffalo Bills, San Diego Chargers, and Indiana Pacers. Silly as these are, they are like the locally contrived names of category 7A in inviting us to think of individual team members as being Hokies or Bills or whatever.

The name Hokies was deliberately chosen by students in the desire to have a completely meaningless, made-up name. In a way, it’s like choosing a color for a name, for there is no mental image of a Hokie to slow the mind’s transition from name to team.

Indiana Pacers is another dumb professional team name, meaning not much of anything, supposedly combining (abstractly) the pacing horse of harness racing with the pace car of the Indianapolis 500!

The San Diego Chargers might be thought of as spirited horses, but it turns out the owner liked the crowd shout of “Charge!” after the bugle call at ball games, and that is where the name came from. Who’s charging? To further confuse matters, the Chargers have something like a lightning bolt for the team symbol, which makes me think of AAA road service for a dead battery.

Texas Tech Red Raiders is a rare, if not unique, case of a name containing Red that has been certified not to refer to Native Americans. Originally named the Matadors, the team, which wore red uniforms, took on the Red Raiders name about the time a guy made a dramatic entrance on horseback before a game, bullfighter’s red cape now trailing behind him (like a superhero’s), eyes covered with a Lone Ranger or Zorro mask. This became a tradition and presumably defines what a Red Raider is supposed to look like. The idea of a whole group of caped Lone Ranger lookalikes is comical though. It is possible to imagine kids pretending to be this kind of Red Raider, but it is still a made-up name that only looks good compared to names like Buffalo Bills.

What about the Buffalo Bills? Buffalo Bill Cody was a real person. He made a name for himself killing bison by the thousands to feed railroad workers, then formed a touring Wild West show. So, since buffaloes don’t have bills, and I can’t think of what a generic bill would be, I am forced to picture a bunch of identical guys with a certain kind of beard and wearing western garb, brandishing rifles. What does their sideline cartoon character look like? A blue buffalo. So, possibly without realizing it, they are trying to get back to the safety of a totem animal, which presumably even has some historical local connection, given the city’s name.

The Phoenix Suns are put in category 7D for want of a better place. Everyone knows what the Sun is, so it is not a made-up name in that sense. Maybe kings and suns should go into a special category for names of magnificence, which become absurd when applied to a whole team. But there logically can be multiple kings for multiple kingdoms, while there is only one Sun, which makes Suns possibly the most ridiculous of all team names. Yes, I know that the Sun is but one of many of stars, but there is only one Sun. This choice of name seems an attempt to sell what the desert has plenty of, but without stopping to think it through. Sunrays would make more sense, which is not to say it would be good. If a Sun reference is desired, the name Phoenix Sunburns would convey the idea of inflicting pain on opponents without the Satanic imagery of Arizona State’s Sun Devils. Sunstrokes might be even better, as that name evokes images of opponents brought to the ground.

Names that are forces of Nature, which in the singular are presumably meant to bring to mind a team’s powerful collective action, include Alabama Crimson Tide, Tulsa Golden Hurricane, Colorado Avalanche, Tulane Green Wave, Chicago Fire (MLS), and Colorado Rapids (MLS).

It’s possible for members of a team and their fans to think of themselves as part of a collective that works together to make a powerful whole, so that taken together the group could be called, symbolically, the Crimson Tide or the Golden Hurricane. If an army could be given such a nickname, then it could work for a team. Natural forces, especially those of the irresistible or devastating type are sometimes chosen. Tulsa’s Golden Hurricane (singular) makes more sense than Miami U’s 8C plural Hurricanes name, but it seems odd to an outsider, since a golden hurricane is not easily pictured, unlike the Green Wave of Tulane, which brings to mind something like a tidal wave, even if a wave of green-clad athletes is meant. Note that Alabama, like Oakland, has chosen an elephant as a visual totem-animal representation of the team.

The Chicago Fire references a famous local destructive event, and fits into 8A as well as any other category. I guess it didn’t bother the namers that the fire destroyed much of the city the team represents. I’m not sure whether the Colorado Rapids are supposed to be admired like the Rockies are feared like the Avalanche, but I can’t think of a better place to put them than here. Rapid is an adjective, so they could also be, secondarily (as a pun), an example of an adjective turned into a noun to denote individuals (7A).

The singular noun weather names (8B), Oklahoma City Thunder and Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL), are both associated with the same frightful phenomenon. Except for having the notions of sudden action, danger, and impressive sensory stimuli in their favor, they are like Heat in being abstractions difficult to identify human beings with. They are something like the names of 8A. But, since they are intermittent phenomena, not as easily associated with massive group activity, I think they deserve a separate category. Thunder Claps and Lightning Bolts would go into 8C.

Category 8C contains names that implicitly identify the team’s players with destructive phenomena through the use of the plural. These include Iowa State Cyclones, Miami and Carolina Hurricanes, Calgary Flames (NHL), and San Jose Earthquakes (MLS).

Hurricanes are really too big to associate with individuals, even in the imagination, but the Miami University (FL) and Carolina NHL teams make the attempt. Cyclones in Iowa are tornadoes. These are at least confined to a smaller area and thus a little easier to associate with individual players, but nothing about a bunch of tornadoes suggests co-ordinated action. Flames are the plural representation of fire, which can be viewed as a destructive natural phenomenon. I thought Hurricanes covered too large an area to make sense, but Earthquakes take the prize for sheer physical extent, not to mention impossibility of visualization.

Inanimate objects that at least move through space rapidly have been chosen to name the Houston Rockets, New York and Winnipeg Jets, Seattle Supersonics (in the past), and Baltimore Bullets (in the past).

The Houston Rockets NBA team, like the city’s MLB team, the Astros (7B), uses a space theme to associate it with the local NASA center. Rockets are as inanimate as Spurs and Nuggets (see below), but they are at least speedily mobile and self-propelled and, unlike the Astros, refer to something beyond the team itself. Jets and Supersonics (now defunct) are also fast and self-propelled, though none of them can purposefully guide themselves. Now that I think of it, could the name of the New York Jets also contain a West Side Story allusion? If so, the Jets could be street-gang members instead of airplanes, which could move them to category 4D. There’s no such possibility for the NHL Winnipeg team though.

The Jets and Rockets could raise the question of whether they satisfy my criterion of being things a child might pretend to be in play. I suppose that, in a way, I pretended to be a fighter plane, when as a boy I made the sounds of a diving Hellcat on a strafing run, guns firing, my arms outstretched for wings, but that imaginary plane was just a prop for what I saw myself as—the plane’s pilot. So I still say no to Jets and Rockets, and the criterion was only for being considered, anyway.

The Baltimore Bullets (9A) NBA team of the past, sort of melded the ideas behind the Colt 45s (see below) and the Houston Rockets, but alliteration was surely a factor. Bullets are mere projectiles, however, dependent on being shot from a gun to attain their speed. After the team had been in its new home in Washington DC for a while, it was decided that Washington Bullets was unseemly for the nation’s capital, especially given the city’s high murder rate. So the team namers went for alliteration again and came up with Wizards, an unfortunate name that fits none of my categories, but doesn’t seem worthy of having one all to itself.

Inanimate objects with a local connection of some sort have provided names to the San Antonio Spurs, Ohio State Buckeyes, Houston (formerly) Colt 45s, Toronto Maple Leafs, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, and Columbus Blue Jackets.

In the same way as White Sox identifies a Chicago team by a uniform part, the San Antonio Spurs name might be suitable for a rodeo team of some sort, though it would need to add a distinguishing adjective (Silver Spurs?). But basketball players don’t wear spurs. As a standalone name, Spurs is pretty weak, in my mind. Literally speaking, who wants to be a Spur? It’s like the laughable reference to a Boston player as a Red Sock. The great success of the San Antonio NBA team has made its name seem more plausible than it really is. But at least spurs are concrete, which makes them superior to names that are just flagyl abstractions.

An interesting, and at first puzzling, inanimate object name with a local connection belongs to the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Buckeye is a tree, or the inedible nut from that tree. Ohio evidently became known as the Buckeye State during the Presidential election of 1840. I can’t help thinking that the choosing of the name Buckeyes was done without much thought as to what a Buckeye really was. They have actually made the sideline cartoon fellow be a personified nut. I guess the Buckeye is in a sense a totem tree, but I think there’s an element of the adjective (as in Buckeye State) turned into noun effect through its use in the plural (like Athletics), which explains the name better, even though I’m leaving it in 9B. Of course, as with any successful team’s name, a Buckeye is by now someone who plays for Ohio State.

The Maple Leafs (why not Leaves?) obviously must come from the Canadian flag, right? Actually the team name came long before the adoption of the current flag. The maple leaf emblem had been on the uniforms of Canadian soldiers in WWI, though, and that is presumably why Maple Leafs was chosen for the team, whose members would also wear the symbol. An argument could be made to put this name in with uniform identifiers (6C). In any case, even as an inanimate object name, Maple Leafs is a great improvement over the team’s previous name—St. Pats—which is even more absurd than ambien Buffalo Bills.

I recall that the Houston MLB team, like the Spurs, was first identified with inanimate objects with a Texas Wild West theme, but in the weapons category. The Houston Colt 45s was a name which could not be sustained.

The Denver Nuggets name probably stands alone in being totally inanimate, inert, inorganic, and not a product of human manufacture. How can fans urge a pile of rocks into action? How could I have forgotten? Writing the phrase “pile of rocks” actually brought to mind another team name that comes pretty close: the Colorado Rockies (referred to above in an introductory paragraph, actually written later). Must be something about Colorado. Blue Jackets is not much of a name, but the other finalist for the Columbus NHL team name was Justice, which would have been much worse.

Inanimate object names that don’t fit well into other categories are Brooklyn Nets and Buffalo Sabres. The NBA Nets (then New York) name was clearly chosen to rhyme with the already existing NFL Jets and MLB Mets, and is pretty meaningless. Yes, I get the basketball net reference, but who wants to be a Net, which just hangs from the rim passively? Sabres are inanimate slashing weapons, perhaps chosen because of a certain resemblance to skate viagra blades.

The terrible sports team name game is easy to play. Choose something inanimate or abstract, preferably with a geographical tie-in and alliterative with the locale. What about New Orleans Mardi Gras or Chicago Mob? Los Angeles Freeways or Newark Needles? Fresno Frenzy or Carolina Calm? Houston Hiphop or Raleigh Rap? Jacksonville Judgment or Tennessee Truth? Seattle Nirvana (trademark issue?), Kansas City Karma, Denver High, or Hollywood Egos? Michigan Mystery or Cincinnati Certainty? Madison Affair or DC Drones? Wouldn’t London Plague be a devastating name for an NFL expansion team? Hawaii Lava or Washington Eruptions? Atlantic City Ocean or Montana Sky? Sad to say, some of those sound like realistic candidates for future team names.

My final post on the topic of sports team names will be devoted to names based on Native American warriors and tribes. There I will present my solution to the problem of the Washington Redskins
viagra name.

On the Naming of Sports Teams II: Non-Indian Warriors & Groups with Local Associations

October 8th, 2014

This is the second installment of my thoughts on the naming of sports teams, leading up to my proposal for dealing with the Washington Redskins name, which will appear a couple of posts later, to universal applause, I’m sure. In my previous blog post, I discussed the very popular use of animals and birds for names and suggested categories into which the names could be organized.

Here are my proposed categories for the next-most popular type of team names, those in which either the fierce animals are replaced by fierce human beings or the less fierce totem-like animals are replaced by people having a special association with the team’s home territory. Team names that are Beings of Good or Evil, though few in number, seem to warrant a category of their own. As before, I give only one example for each subcategory in the list, but mention more in the discussion that follows. I am saving the discussion of the use of names associated with Native Americans, which naturally belong in the categories 3 or 4 below, for a separate treatment in the last post of the series.

3. Fierce fighters from history or myth (non-local)

(A) brave warriors (Spartans)
(B) ruthless plunderers (Raiders)
(C) mythical (Titans)

4. Groups with local associations

(A) historical non-military (Sooners)
(B) historical military (Minutemen)
(C) occupational (Steelers)
(D) representative / emblematic (Texans)
(E) students at the school (Cadets)

5. Beings of Good or Evil

(A) Good (Angels)
(B) Evil (Blue Devils)

I’ve suggested that naming teams after animals is psychologically akin to the choosing of animals as emblems for totem groups. Names based on groups of historical people come closer to actual identification, being roughly equivalent to veneration of heroes or honoring of ancestors. Although most people probably don’t think about it more than they do for teams named after animals, I wonder if this doesn’t unnecessarily elevate some bloodthirsty qualities in the case of fierce fighter names, especially, of course, those of category 3B, with whom no one should want to identify.

Among historical brave warrior names (3A) are the Michigan St. Spartans, USC Trojans, and Holy Cross Crusaders.

There are numerous teams with Native American warrior names, but I’m putting that discussion off for later. It’s really striking how few of the non-Indian warrior names there are. Were the Spartans chosen over their formidable military rivals, the Athenians, because Sparta’s side ultimately won the Peloponnesian War? It’s probably because Athens is more renowned for its philosophers than its fighters, while the severe military culture of the Spartans automatically makes one think of warriors. Winning can’t be the only criterion for being deemed worthy of a team’s name, or how would the Trojans, who lost to the Achaeans, get the honor? Have the Achaeans been left out of naming because they had to use a ruse to conquer Troy? Or is it just because most people would call Troy’s besiegers Greeks, which wouldn’t work as a name due to modern associations that would override any Homeric allusion? Romans can be ruled out on similar grounds. Somehow the Trojans managed also to get a condom brand named after them, so clearly they are the ultimate winners in terms of lasting name recognition.

Some would no doubt object to my including the Crusaders in category 3A, since they are typically viewed these days as early European imperialists, conquering and oppressing the Arabs of the Holy Land, centuries before the next wave of British and French came to dominate the region. In fact, the European knights who waged the Crusades were at a technological disadvantage, but nevertheless managed through their zeal, courage, and battle skills to win and hold a good chunk of territory in the Holy Land for decades. And it should be remembered that the Crusades occurred in the context of centuries-old Arab rule of Portugal and Spain. The clash between the warriors of Islam and Christendom in the Crusades of the Middle Ages went on for almost two centuries, far surpassing in length the wars in which the Trojans and Spartans fought; not to mention the Punic wars between the Romans and Carthaginians (neglected also). Saracens, as the European crusaders called their Arab warrior opponents, might make a good name in the historical warrior category, but it will never be chosen, especially in the context of modern Jihadism. I have to wonder how long the College of the Holy Cross will hold on to the Crusader name.

To the ruthless plunderers category 3B I would assign the Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Pirates, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Idaho Vandals.

I’m sure that, beyond their image of ferocity, part of the attraction of these category 3B names is their association with anarchic freedom and adventure. But this is anarchic freedom with respect to those who are being raped, killed, enslaved, and plundered; and the adventure is in the hunt for new human prey. Someone looking for a name-changing moral crusade (oops, that word!) might want to consider eliminating names of category 3B before going after Native American names equivalent to those of category 3A.

The name Idaho Vandals, while evoking images of juvenile window breakers, makes reference to the “barbarians” that sacked Rome in 455 A.D., an allusion which few are likely to get without help. I wonder why the Vandals were chosen over the Visigoths, who also sacked Rome? Syllable count perhaps. Other invaders that terrorized Europe, such as the Mongols and Huns have also been shut out of the ruthless plunderer name category. As I will say more than once, I think the fewer of these kind of names the better, so I’m not proposing them for new teams.

Given the merciless way the inhabitants of conquered cities were usually treated in ancient times, the distinction between brave historical warriors and ruthless plunderers may seem to rest more on what characteristics the namers have sought to attach to their teams (martial virtues or sheer ferocity, roughly) than to degrees of savagery. But Trojans and Spartans did abide by some rules of war, such as truces for burial of the dead, recognizing places of sanctuary, and keeping (for a while anyway) of treaties, and there was an element of patriotism or a higher cause in their struggles. This sets them apart from marauders like pirates, who were thieving cutthroats out for bloody personal gain and nothing more.

I think the association of a team with fierce human fighters risks taking on their moral shortcomings in a way that identification with blameless wild animals doesn’t. Mythical warriors (3C) such as the New York and San Francisco Giants and the Tennessee Titans are more like animals in that regard. The Houston Oilers (4C), when they moved to Nashville, became the Tennessee Titans (obviously chosen for alliteration, 3C), that name being available because earlier the New York Titans (lame New York Giants imitation, given the location) chose a rhyming name (Jets) when the New York Mets got a MLB franchise.

In the case of local associations, the names are an assertion of local pride, whether in city or in State, at least in the beginning; but sometimes the association fades and the meaning of a name becomes obscure to everyone, eventually coming to mean little beyond the athletic team itself. The transformation of an obscure local group reference into an animal totem sometimes occurs, as I mentioned in the previous blog post on animal names for the case of the Oregon Webfoots (people, 4A) becoming Ducks. Similar examples are mentioned below.

To the category 4A (historical non-military) belong the Oklahoma Sooners; Dallas, Wyoming, and Oklahoma St. Cowboys; Virginia Cavaliers; Texas Rangers; North Carolina Tar Heels; San Francisco 49ers; Philadelphia 76ers; San Diego Padres; New England Patriots (see discussion); Seattle Mariners; Notre Dame Fighting Irish (see discussion); and New York Knickerbockers and Yankees.

The Cavaliers are borderline military. So are the 76ers and Patriots through their ties to the American Revolution. The Cowboys and Mariners could arguably be put in the occupational 4C category, but the historical association seems stronger to me. There are several other team names in category 4 for which the subcategory is not clearcut, but their existence is not sufficient reason to dissolve the boundaries between subcategories, in my mind.

The Sooners were, strictly speaking, cheaters, as they were the early bird homesteaders that went into Oklahoma to claim land well before they were authorized to in 1889, but I guess they get credit for their initiative, and they got to keep the land they claimed. Oklahoma was supposed to be Indian Territory, but there’s nothing unique about that kind of takeback. Given the Oklahoma football team’s success over the decades, Sooners has become a name that defines a team, rather like the Dodgers and Lakers names do, making the historical reference largely irrelevant.

North Carolina’s Tar Heels name seems to be the local equivalent of Hillbillies (and might go into either 4A or 4D depending on whether the historical aspect is emphasized). Similarly, since the Texas Rangers (State law enforcement officers) still exist, they could arguably be paired with Houston’s Texans as representatives of the State in 4D, but I think the historical association is stronger. The 49ers (4A) of San Francisco could evoke the frenzy of a gold rush, but they also are a case where the team has come to define the name rather than the reverse.

The New York Knickerbockers name (Google it) probably fits best into 4A, given its roots in stories of New Amsterdam. Now everyone just says Knicks, and few probably know how the name originated, but I think everyone feels Knicks are somehow New Yorkers. This is just another of the team names that might be placed in either 4A or 4D, depending on how current the usage of the name is deemed in denoting inhabitants of the team’s territory.

It’s hard to say where to put Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish, as it’s a name that brings to mind short-tempered brawlers (who may have had too much to drink) rather than warriors. I think historical association with tough Irish Catholic immigrants is the best way to look at it, making the name a sort of extension of category 4A.

Historical military names (4B) include the Massachusetts Minutemen, Mississippi Rebels, Tennessee Volunteers, and (originally) Kansas Jayhawks.

The U. of Massachusetts Minutemen name is a nice example of 4B. The name was originally the Redmen, but that was wisely abandoned for one having a local historical military connection. The New England Patriots name is in the same general line, though the name Patriots associated with Boston in particular evokes memories of Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and the Boston Tea Partiers, as well as those who fired the shots heard round the world, and I have placed Patriots in 4A. The original Patriots logo, which was sort of comical, showed a guy wearing a three-cornered hat (making it clear that the reference was to the time of the American Revolution) and down in center position with a football. The current logo shows instead the face of a nonexistent comic book superhero “Patriot,” known locally as the “Flying Elvis.” Imagine a whole team of those characters. Ugly vision.

The Rebels of the University of Mississippi are named for those who took up arms in support of secession from the United States in order to preserve the institution of slavery. That is the fact. Of course, many rebels fought bravely and most were not personally slaveholders, but this is a case where courage can’t be separated from the cause it supported. The Civil War does not belong to the forgotten past, and the riots that accompanied the enrollment of the first Black man, James Meredith, at the University in 1962 are a century closer. There is now a statue of Meredith at the University, and the Confederate officer sideline mascot has been transformed into a “Rebel Black Bear,” but the team name remains Rebels, and it should also be retired.

The Kansas Jayhawks name (4B, originally) is a quasi-military historical reference, made even more obscure by the metamorphosis of the Jayhawk into a cartoonish totem bird. The Jayhawks fought on the anti-slavery side in Kansas before the Civil War, and, in reality, may have been more like marauders than minutemen, but they have receded into the mists of history. A mythical bird is now used to depict the Jayhawk, since the totem animal (1A) impulse has once again triumphed, as it did with the Oregon Ducks. The “Jayhawk” does not look much like a hawk. It resembles Heckle and Jeckle, a pair of cartoon magpies, though with a somewhat curved bill, to suggest hawk. It is hard to imagine a large group of these cartoon birds, as the plural of a team name implies.

Names associated with local occupations (4C) include: Pittsburgh Steelers; Purdue Boilermakers; Green Bay Packers; Nebraska Cornhuskers; UTEP Miners; and Edmonton (also in the past, Houston) Oilers.

I would imagine most colleges with occupation-based names gain nothing from them for out-of-state recruiting of athletes. If you grow up in Nebraska, you may take pride in the name, but if you were from California would Cornhuskers be attractive? At least it’s a lot more attractive than the team’s original name of Bugeaters (a local bat, 2A). Still, with enough success, the team defines the name, and the name can become an asset.

In the 4D category I would put the New York Mets and Islanders, Houston Texans, West Virginia Mountaineers, and Ottawa (also in the past, Washington) Senators.

The Senators name sticks out in that group as one that applies only to a small number of the city’s inhabitants, but it doesn’t seem right to file it under occupational. The name is just a way of stating the town is a seat of government, and not just historically.

The name of the New York Mets (4D) is a short form of Metropolitans, which seems quite appropriate for a NYC team, since the shortened form is used when speaking of the Metropolitan Museum or the Metropolitan Opera. Through rhyming imitation, though, the Mets name inspired the unfortunate inanimate object Jets and Nets names.

The Los Angeles Dodgers (originally trolley dodgers) name was a kind of local reference in their early Brooklyn days, but now it’s just a name with a lot of baseball tradition and no particular meaning beyond baseball. Dodgers could be assigned to 4D with an asterisk. The same thing might be said of the Los Angeles Lakers name, which made sense when the team was in Minneapolis.

The Boston MLB team is lucky to have shed Beaneaters, an early 4D name. I assume the Iowa Hawkeyes would originally have gone into 4A or 4D, but following the totem-transformation principle, they are now indistinguishable from hawks (1A), though I can’t say much for the quality of their logo.

College teams named after the members of the student body (4E) include Army Cadets, Navy Midshipmen, and Texas A&M Aggies. The military academies’ students shed those names upon graduation, but an Aggie is an Aggie for life. At least it was so in the past when A&M was all-male and required ROTC, and I imagine it still is for most. I remember hearing an Aggie friend of my (non-Aggie) father say that he had decided there were only two kinds of people in the world: Aggies and non-Aggies.

Beings of Good (5A) include the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the New Orleans Saints, though both need an asterisk.

While I’ve designated the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as the example of a team named for Beings of Good (5A), which is technically true, the name may be better suited to an extended view of 4A or 4D, since it comes from the Spanish name for the Ciudad de los Angeles, thus making Angels a historical association, though not with an actual human group, and also emblematic. The New Orleans Saints name is in rather a similar position, since it obviously comes from historical association of the city with the famous jazz hymn, rather than with an actual group of people. Within Catholic Church tradition, I think Saints would be classified as 5A, since no one becomes recognized as a Saint while alive on this Earth, and such recognition requires miracles of intercession to have been made through said Saint, verified to the satisfaction of the Church. The 5A classification probably makes as much sense as any, though I have no idea what is in the mind of New Orleans football fans. As with many teams, the team has come to define the name to the point where the word Saints makes many people think of football, just as Yankees makes them think of baseball.

In category 5B are the Duke Blue Devils, Wake Forest Demon Deacons, Arizona St. Sun Devils, and New Jersey Devils.

Except for one (sort of, supposedly), the teams named for beings of Evil (5B) have no excuse of history or geography to justify their choice. The namers just wanted to symbolically acquire the power of Evil and the ability to inflict the pains of Hell, judging from their team logos. I’m sure this is all meant tongue in cheek and not really thought of for the most part, as is the case of all team names. Still, I think this is a bad idea, even worse than identifying the team with ruthless felons.

The Jersey Devil is supposedly a legendary, chimeric creature said to inhabit the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, but the team logo clearly has horns and a pointed tail on the J of NJ, and the arena “mascot” is made to resemble the traditional depiction of Satan; so whatever the origin of the name, it’s associated with the Evil One or his cohorts now. The Arizona St. logo is a horned, tailed, pitch-forked Devil. Now, for those who don’t believe in supernatural evil powers, the choice of devils for the team name may seem something like the choice of Titans, a mythological sort of unrestrained afflictive force, carrying no more moral responsibility than the choice of blameless animals. I think, however, the strong identification of devils with Evil, whether or not one believes in them, makes them unworthy of providing names to a team. Interestingly, the Duke Blue Devils and Wake Forest Demon Deacons (what a combination!) were, when the names were chosen, at least, schools in close relations with Protestant churches, having loosely used Methodists and Baptists as team names earlier.

The NBA Sacramento Kings don’t fit into any of my categories, and don’t warrant having one of their own. They were the Cincinnati Royals (originally with alliteration in Rochester) before moving to Kansas City, which already had the Kansas City Royals MLB team. Keeping the connection to royalty, while regaining alliteration with the name Kansas City Kings, may have seemed like a no-brainer, but the idea of a whole team consisting of kings seems pretty ludicrous to me. Still, it’s only a little more problematic than one made up solely of chiefs, which Kansas City already had in its NFL team at the time the name was chosen. An opportunity was missed to change the name from Kings when the team moved to Sacramento. I just noticed the Old Dominion Monarchs, so there’s at least one other name like the Kings, but I am not adding a category for hereditary rulers anyway. Whoa, I forgot the Los Angeles Kings NHL team (Stanley Cup Champions!). If I ever revise this analysis (unlikely), I’ll have to think about adding monarchs.

I think that if I were naming a team, I would choose either an animal name, a color identifier, or a local non-military group association, avoiding even a hint of glorifying historical butchery or support for a bad cause. The next installment in this series will deal with team names that are abstractions, forces of nature, or inanimate objects.

On the Naming of Sports Teams I: Animals & Birds

September 29th, 2014

My foolhardy and woefully unfulfilled goal back when I started this blog was to have one post per week. But that was before the App Store called and before I got on Twitter (@onscrn). I think I may be able to meet that schedule at least for the next few weeks. So, stay tuned. It’s only fitting that I should turn to a Twitter-worthy subject, but one that requires far more than 140 characters to begin to do it justice: the naming of sports teams, which has been under discussion in the context of the recently controversial Washington DC National Football League team name, Redskins.

First, I mean to discuss and analyze this phenomenon and then to provide a solution to the problem of the Washington Redskins name. Rather than do all this in a single post, as I had ativan originally intended, I’ve decided to spread it out over four posts to avoid having a post that’s longer than what almost anyone would read.

Why do sports teams need names anyway? There is a practical aspect. “The Cubs are in town today,” is a succinct way of saying “Chicago’s National League Baseball team is playing here today.” But, beyond that, the need for associating some name and image to a team seems part of our psychic makeup. Primitive societies subdivide tribes into totem groups, each group identified with and named for a specific animal or bird. Nor can we overlook the lions and dragons of heraldry or the eagles of the Roman legions. The emblem gives a sense of reality to an abstract concept of group membership. That is easiest, of course, when the name is concrete instead of abstract. I am very glad that no team I naturally support because of where I live or where I went to school has a name like Magic.

The types of names—I’ll say names rather than mascots to avoid confusion with actual animals sometimes seen on the sidelines (such as Bevo, the Texas longhorn) or with the unfortunate walking cartoon characters with disproportionately large heads, who seem a requirement at games now—fall into a few categories. Very few team names have more than three syllables, and I can’t think of any with more than four. So shortness is a criterion. The name needs to be easily shouted in cheers. Alliteration, as in Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Pirates, is obviously a feature that team namers love.

In this blog post and the following three, I shall take a stab at defining the various categories into which team names fall. I’ll be giving a single example in category itemization, but will mention more in the discussions that follow. It will be obvious that some names could fit into more than one category and that my classification scheme is not the only one that might be devised. It should serve to organize the discussion though. My ideas on where the various Native American team names fit into this scheme will be presented in the final post of the series. Here are the first two of my categories, the ones I discuss in this post.

1. Fierce animals and birds

(A) wild predators (Lions, Hawks)
(B) belligerent male herbivores (Bulls)
(C) other combative “domesticated” animals (Bulldogs, Gamecocks)
(D) stinging insects & venomous reptiles (Hornets, Diamondbacks)

2. Totem animals and birds, not noted as fierce

(A) local (Horned Frogs, Orioles)
(B) non-local (Huskies, Owls)
(C) humorous/offbeat (Anteaters)

I haven’t made a survey, but animals and birds would seem to provide the most team names. Since team names are most often meant to present an image that’s intimidating to opponents and inspiring to the team it represents, wild carnivorous beasts and fowls predominate, but the totem-like aspect of the association of a group with an animal can’t be ignored. Some obvious names come to mind in the fierce animal predator category (1A), with some of the names attached to several teams: Detroit Lions; Chicago and Baylor Bears; UCLA and Boston Bruins; Memphis Grizzlies; LSU, Missouri, Auburn, and Detroit Tigers; Cincinnati Bengals; Houston, Brigham Young, and Washington St. Cougars; Carolina, Florida (NHL), and Pitt Panthers; Jacksonville Jaguars; Kentucky and Kansas St. Wildcats; Minnesota Timberwolves; Michigan Wolverines; Florida ‘Gators, to name a few of the current professional and college team names. The prevalence of feline predators is notable, probably due to the suddenness of their attacks. Fierce feathered predators (1A) include: Philadelphia and Boston College Eagles; Atlanta Hawks and Falcons; and Seattle Sea Hawks (Ospreys). These birds, like the wild cats, are also noted for their sudden attacks, and share with them long, sharp claws, which make for an imposing aspect.

Sometimes these animals also have a geographical association with the team, as the ‘Gators with Florida. Historically speaking anyway, most of the North American mammals and birds probably have some geographical connection with the teams whose names they supply. Non-mammalian animal names, such as Gators, for teams are pretty rare, presumably because it’s harder to identify with a Gator than, say, a fellow mammal like a Bear.

Herbivores, both wild and domesticated, if perceived as strong and dangerous, may also be chosen as a team’s fierce animal image (1B), e.g. Chicago Bulls, St. Louis and Fordham Rams, Milwaukee Bucks, and Colorado Buffaloes. Bulls, Rams, and Bucks make the association with aggressive males specific. The Dallas Mavericks, viewed as adult males, rather than calves or generic cattle, could fit into 1B also. Of course my Texas Longhorns, a name with obvious local associations as well, are in this category. I don’t know what their dispositions are like, but those intimidating horns could impale a person or other large mammal, which is why Bevo, the sideline animal, is actually a testosterone-limited steer instead of a bull.

I think other domesticated animals with a reputation for combativeness are worth a separate subcategory (1C). Bulldogs (Georgia) were bred for the cruel sport of bull-baiting and are feared watchdogs today. South Carolina’s Gamecocks are fighting non-predatory birds, though it’s illegal to actually set them on each other for sport these days. I’ll put the Arkansas Razorbacks (feral swine) into 1C, but a case could be made for expanding 1B to include these pigs, since these non-predators are reputedly just mean by nature and were not bred to fight. One could also make a case for putting hawks and falcons in category 1C, given their use in the sport of falconry.

Even more difficult to identify with than the Florida Gator is the Arizona Diamondback (rattlesnake, 1D), but there is again a geographical association, and there’s no denying the things are intimidating. Ditto for the San Jose Sharks (1A), who really don’t have much of a geographical argument in their favor. The Georgia Tech Yellowjackets and Charlotte Hornets (1D) sacrifice all pretense to intelligence to maximize the intimidation factor, in a way that suggests a swarming onslaught. I think I’d rather support a team with a more intelligent animal than a reptile or insect as its namesake, but I suppose one gets used to it. If I can support a team designated by the color of its “Sox,” why not?

A handsome bird such as a Baltimore Oriole (2A), Toronto Blue Jay, or St. Louis Cardinal is sometimes chosen with or without strong local association, instead of a raptor, but never an ugly or overly common bird such as a sparrow. And never a carrion eater, or one whose diet is primarily carrion, anyway. I had assumed Oregon’s Ducks would naturally fit into category 2A or 2B, but a Wikipedia article revealed that the original team name was Webfoots, which referred to some early human settlers, thus corresponding to category 4A (to be revealed in the next post). The image and name of the webfooted bird has taken over, though, and has assumed a totem-like role. I imagine the charming Delaware Blue Hen is a local totem bird (2A). The New Orleans Pelicans are surely local totem birds, as I can recall when Louisiana license plates had a pelican on them. The owl (1A or 2B) is carnivorous and brings death to small animals just as surely as other flying predators, while lacking the speed of the falcon or the grandeur of the eagle. The owl carries a certain mystique associated with silent, nocturnal flight and its supposed wisdom, and Rice and Temple Universities have chosen the owl as their symbol.

My favorite of all bird names belongs to the minor league baseball Toledo Mud Hens (2A). We called coots mud hens in Texas too. I’ve been wishing Toledo could get a major league team just for the name. The Mud Hens may be an exception to the rule I postulated above that no ugly birds would serve for a team name. I knew they had to be a local totem bird, (2A) because how else would they have come up with the name? Wikipedia confirmed that the original ball park was located next to a marsh inhabited by American Coots. The Atlanta Thrashers, formerly an NHL team, were obviously a local totem bird (Georgia’s State bird is the Brown Thrasher) with a tough-sounding name in the context. The U of Texas at San Antonio Roadrunners would seem to fit nicely into category 2A, as roadrunners are plentiful around San Antonio and are not perceived to be fierce. They are a bit like the owl and badger in having a case for technical inclusion in 1A, since they actually prey on lizards, rodents, and snakes, not just insects. But perception is paramount in a team symbol, and the cartoon Roadrunner has formed people’s impression of the bird, at least where it is not native, so some might perceive the name as belonging to category 2C. Anaheim Ducks began as a Disney film tie-in (Mighty Ducks), but have since moved into the totem category (dropping the “Mighty”), as is the natural tendency.

The Beaver of Oregon St. is obviously a geographically linked totem animal (2A) since the State flag of Oregon displays a beaver. Minnesota Gophers (2A or 2C?) is an odd name, since the small rodents are usually viewed as varmints. They gain some prestige (hinting at something magical?) by being called the Golden Gophers, and, I must assume, gophers are plentiful in Minnesota. An alternative breakdown of “non-fierce” totem animals might have been into spirited and placid ones. The Wisconsin Badgers (2B, 1A) don’t sound all that intimidating, though I wouldn’t try reaching into a badger burrow, and they certainly prey on gophers. I imagine they would go into the spirited subcategory, while the gophers and beavers probably wouldn’t. The TCU Horned Frogs (actually lizards) fit the local non-fierce totem category (2A), but their thorny skin and horns do give them an intimidating appearance. To me, as a kid, they were just the “horny toads” we used to pick up by the tail for fun. They puff themselves up to appear more formidable and are known for squirting blood from their eyes to thwart predators. Despite their appearance, they are really about as placid as could be and are less intelligent, even, than gophers.

Unbroken horses like SMU’s Mustangs and Denver’s Broncos can do a lot of damage with their hooves, even if they are less likely to charge than a bull or bison, and they are certainly swift (another prized descriptor for a sports team) and spirited. They might belong in 2A, given the western locations of the teams they symbolize. The committee that chose the name for the Washington Huskies made a rather strained case for its referring to a totem animal with a local connection, saying Seattle was recognized as the “Gateway to the Alaskan frontier,” but I’m calling it non-local (2B). The Husky name replaced the local group reference name Sundodgers, which might belong in the comical made-up name category tramadol (7D in later post).

Some relatively recent names are of aquatic animals not normally thought of as fierce, but associated with the area of Florida teams: Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, and Miami Dolphins. I’d call them all totem animals with a geographical tie (2A). Chicago’s Cubs are the only example that comes to mind of a team named for a baby animal. Since they have not matured yet into fierce predators, I’m putting them in 2B. Wait, what about the Indianapolis Colts? Since they started in Baltimore, I’m thinking they were envisioned as old enough to race, not wobbly foals. The Pittsburgh Penguins of NHL hockey were no doubt chosen for the alliteration, as well as for seeming at home on the ice, but technically they belong to 2B.

There aren’t very many names that belong in the comical or semicomical category 2C. I think they are basically mistakes, as they display a certain contempt for the idea of sports team allegiance. But even for these names, the totem principle asserts itself. Anteaters for example. I have no doubt that the 60‘s choice was meant as a kind of parody choice when selected by student vote, but now they actually have Anteater pride at UC Irvine. Bowdoin once went by the Fighting Pine Trees, but later became Polar Bears. Stanford’s sideline mascot dresses as a tree now, but how long will this last? I had assumed the Tufts Jumbos (circus elephant) must belong in this class, but the truth was a little different. P. T. Barnum was a Tufts alum, and he donated the stuffed actual Jumbo to the school. Supposedly, the coaches and athletes decided to become Jumbos. Unfortunately, the remains of Jumbo were consumed in a fire in 1975. Given the Barnum connection, I think category 2A is appropriate for the Jumbos. I have a problem with a whole team being named after an individual though. UConn Huskies (get it?), as distinguished from the serious totem (quasi local) animal, the Washington Huskies, must have been chosen for the chuckle value originally, but I’m sure it is now a serious totem animal. I can only think of one team using an extinct animal in its name: Toronto Raptors, which doesn’t seem worth making a separate (accutane) category.

My next post will deal with teams named after fierce warriors or groups associated with regions, exclusive of Native Americans.