World O’ Words: Why is it always about the quarterback?

A weekly look at peculiarities and developments in the language

World O’ Words: Why is it always about the quarterback?

Everybody in the official commentary business is using the word “quarterbacked” in place of “led.” Why does this clumsy word have such dominance in the world o’ metaphors?

A quarterback, of course, is the leader of the offense in footfall, who starts the plays, standing closer to the offensive line than the halfback, or the fullback. So of course, he or she is a true leader — on the football field!

But for some reason, probably because the Americans are football mad, and Americans are calling the linguistic shots these days, “quarterback” has burst out into the lexicon.

Even the British are using it. “The archeologist quarterbacked a series of non-invasive digs at the ancient Roman site.” Really — “Quarterbacked a series of digs!”

It has taken its place in other sports completely unlike football, such as hockey.

“Niedermayer was instrumental in quarterbacking the New Jersey Devils’ powerplay.”

And here in Cranbrook: “Mayor Lee Pratt quarterbacked Cranbrook City Council through that crazy, complicated Official Community Plan process.”

Or was it Chief Administrative Officer David Kim? Just who is the quarterback, down at Cranbrook City Hall? Who is the cornerback? Who is the wide receiver? Who is the long snapper? But I digress.

You get the picture? Then let me suggest that the word “captain” is much better, as an all purpose metaphor for “to lead.” It has the same pleasing phonetics, including two compelling voiceless plosives — that great “K” sound, and the intriguing “P.” It’s syllablization rolls out of the mouth as a spondee (two stressed syllables — Dah Dah) instead of the dactyl of “Quarterback (one stressed followed by two unstressed — Dah dah-dah).

“Captain” is more wide ranging. You can’t be the quarterback of a pirate ship. But you can be the captain of a pirate ship (and stand on the quarterdeck). You can be the captain of a team, no matter what sport. You can be a captain of industry.

If a quarterback goes down, it’s because of some failure of his or her play-calling, or some failure of his of her offensive line in protecting him or her. If a captain goes down (militarily speaking), it’s because he or she fell at the front of his or her company, leading them into battle. Or perhaps because of some gross imcompetence higher up the chain of command. In all my readings, I’ve noticed it’s never the captain’s fault; it’s always the lieutenant’s, or the major’s. But once again, I digress.

* * *

“Quarterback” is just another example of taking the sports metaphor ball and running with it. If you don’t know your sports, someone can really throw a curve at you by slipping a metaphor into the talk. It’s like they’re moving the goalposts on you. You find yourself on the conversational ropes, but that’s just par for the course.

It can be, as the English say, a real sticky wicket, but most of these metaphors seemed to be derived from American sports, or sports the Americans really wrote the language for, like boxing (down for the count, etc), or football (“he threw a Hail Mary pass” — though that is, strangely, a religious metaphor that’s migrated into sports. I think we need more of those).

The English idiom, as mentioned, seems to rely overly much on cricket (sticky wicket, ‘he’s had his innings,’ ‘my son never sits on the British umpire,’ etc).

In Canada, we’re hard pressed to slip ice hockey metaphors into our speech, except in the lamest of political speeches. In this regard, I confess I always thought “taking the gloves off” — getting ready to fight — derived from hockey, but in fact the history of that phrase is a lot older; coming out of prize fighting. Like the boxers are stopping to take their gloves off, to do greater damage to each other. But that doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s one thing for hockey players to quickly drop their gloves and fight, but boxers? You’d think while one boxer was stopping to unlace his gloves, the other one would just coldcock him. I mean, if you’re dispensing with the rules anyway.

Perhaps taking the gloves off derives from duelling — where you took off your gloves to slap your conversational partner in the face, after an insult, so you could demand satisfaction and then choose your weapons. And my weapon would be? Grandiloquent words! (Remember last week’s column?)

Next week in World O’ Words: It takes five fingers to make a fist …