Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Word of the Day: “thug”

I do not follow sports.  So when I saw this item in the table of contents for this week’s New Yorker -- “Amy Davidson on the Richard Sherman affair” -- it meant nothing to me.   I read it only because it is the lead article in the lead section -- “Talk of the Town”:  a spot that, in recent years, is reserved for weighing-in on matters of wide moment, often written by the editor-in-chief.   (For the first decades of the magazine, which was born in a spirit of cheeky and amiable humor, it was more often some winsome pen-portrait of a walk about town, written from the standpoint of the editorial “we” -- which takes reflexive singular concord:  ourself, not ourselves.  But we have all become so serious since those days…)

It turns out that Richard Sherman is -- Well, but you know that already;  you don’t need old Doctor Justice (peering up behind bifocals, from his dusty books) to tell you about him. 

Anyhow, turns out the fellow is a splendid cornerback who just insured his team’s participation in the Superbowl.   Hero, right?  No, villain, thanks to the magic of Social Media.

The fairly undisputed facts are these:

(1)  A pass was thrown to one Crabtree, that might have saved the game for the other side, and Sherman forced an interception.
(2)  In the NFL equivalent of the traditional sportsmanlike tennis gesture of the winner’s leaping over the net to shake hands with one’s respected colleague who happens not to have won this one, Mr. Sherman went up to Mr. Crabtee with outstretched hand.  (Tennis was formerly a sport of decorum, but has since been subject to the mass fanbase with its Darwinian imperative.)
(3)  Crabtree then shoved him in the facemask -- which, football fans will know, is more serious than it sounds, “Facemask” bringing a particularly severe penalty in play.
(4) Interviewed immediately after that, Mr. Sherman unfortunately followed the example, not of the judicious Nestor, but of Achilles, if not Thersites.
(5) For this he was roundly hounded by the Erinyes of Twitter.

Now, what lifts this from the level of quotidian sports trivia, into something worthy of the lead article in The New Yorker,  is that the incident illustrates the increasingly perturbing power of YouTube and Twitter to serve as the contemporary equivalent of the Salem Witch Trials, though with even less evidence.  The anonymous online audience is like a crowd of cicadas:  Devastate;  devastate;  move on.

Richard Sherman, fleeing the Furies

As Ms. Davidson shows in her excellent essay, Mr.  Sherman may be about as close as you can come (certain exceptions aside), in these debased days, to a Gentleman and Scholar (a Stanford alum, no less) in the NFL.   His autodéfense in the matter of the “epic rant”, is almost poetry:

It was loud,
it was in the moment,
and it was a small part of the person I am.

(Even Achilles, you might recall, was not without his faults.  And I don’t mean just the heel.)  Indeed, as Ms. Davidson reports,

He talked about the switch he has to turn on and off to play “a very barbaric sport”.

And the thing about switches is:  If (like the human soul) the item it regulates has a large capacitor, then turning it On or Off  does not result in an instantaneous change of state.   Mr. Sherman was evidently still in barbarian mode when (among the screams from the stands) some reporter shoved a microphone into his face.


Well, so, anyhow.  What business have I, a linguist, to blog about this at all.   The fragile peg I’ll hang it on is simply this:
The word that came up again and again in the Tweets denouncing him (sent from the comfort of a Laz-E-Boy, with chips and a drink ready to hand) was “thug”.  (A semantic bridge was perhaps provided by rappers’ approving use of gangsta.) Mr. Sherman observed that this “bothers me because it seems like it’s the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays.”   And as someone who closely follows the Vox Populi in the Readers Comments columns, I can attest that this is true;  much as, in an earlier generation, in America, inner city came to be a code-word for ‘obstreperous minorities’;  much as, in our own generation, in France, la banlieue has come to mean the same thing (somewhat ironically, since it literally means ‘the outer cities’ or suburbs;  the connotation is thus the opposite of that for suburbs). 

In any event, I wish Mr. Sherman a splendid SuperBowl, just as I do for his worthy opponents.   May that team win, which Fortuna-the-fickle favors.   And may the warriors, en preux chevaliers, embrace one another afterwards, regardless of the outcome, as befits scholars and gentlemen.


For an essay on the logic of tournament sports, try this:
       The Badminton Gambit

No comments:

Post a Comment