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March 09, 2018  |  Friday words #111, 2018-03-09  |  451 hit(s)

This weekend we'll start Daylight Saving Time here in the US, which will, I predict, be accompanied by the usual editorial finger-wagging that it's Saving, singular. Won't that be enjoyable.

The other day I ran across a sports term that was new to me. (Admittedly, my grasp of the vocabulary of the domain of sportsing is modest.) The term is tanking, which means to deliberately lose games, but with strategic intent. In the business of (American?) sports, the losingest team in a league gets first choice in the next year's draft picks. So once your team is out of the running for any sort of championship, it makes perverse sense to go in the other direction and try to be the champion at losing. The article I got this word from calls it the "race to the bottom." Just to be clear, this is not an endorsed approach in professional sports: Mark Cuban, who owns the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, was fined $600,000 for essentially telling a player to lose.

The verb to tank is well established as a term for failing. ("The movie tanked at the box office.") The narrower sense of deliberately losing has made it into a few dictionaries—for example, it's in Merriam-Webster. The first Urban Dictionary entry for tanking in this sense is from 2008, though it might well be older than that; the history of sports certainly has its share of thrown games.

Origins. In his weekly WSJ column, Lexicographer and General Words Person Ben Zimmer wrote about riders in the sense of amendments to a contract. Along the way he included the surprising (to me) history of the word schedule.

This all starts with the Latin word sceda, which referred to a strip of papyrus. The word spread out into other languages with this meaning of "strip of paper"; English got it in medieval times from French, where it was cedule. (Zettel in modern German, cool.) Back in the days when documents were written on parchment, a schedule came to mean a strip of parchment or paper amended to the document that included "explanatory or supplementary matter" (OED). We're talking the 1400s here.

Schedules (with this "amendment" sense) were added to legal documents, like Acts of Parliament, to contain details ("often in tabular form"—OED again) that were not in the original document. The word then generalized to mean a document that laid out information in a tabular or otherwise organized way, or even a blank form that was laid out that way. From there it was a not a huge leap, I guess, to refer to the tabular documents that listed timetables for trains. And from there, finally, to any reference to planned times. Is this history not great?

As an aside, there is the issue of pronunciation. Our British brethren say "shed-yule", whilst we North Americans favor "ske-jule". The OED has a surprisingly long disquisition on this question. In the 18th century, the British said "sed-yule", as one might expect from the French original. By the 19th century, they were saying "shed-yule". Some word-type people favored "sked-yule" in keeping with the ultimate root of the word, but that never caught on in the UK. Somehow—and this is not explained—Americans did adopt this hard "sk" pronunciation, which matches words like school and scheme and some others that came from Latin sc- words. One hesitates to note that American pronunciation is therefore more historically correct, but one might do that anyway, haha.

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