Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Défense: "An assault on the ear"

NPR has regular sports commentary by Frank Deford. Most readers probably know his shtick: He's the literate (downright literary), articulate (in the old, non-racist sense of that word) sports guy. He likes to poke fun at sports clichés*, like most of us, except that he does it for big money. This morning he had a decent rip going about how words like 'momentum' and 'focus' and so on should be considered taboo enough to become X-words (see near the end of this post), so the m-word and f-word respectively. (Have to take a number on the latter, literally: we've got the old Anglo-Saxon f-word and the 'other f-word' that was used to impugn John Edwards' manhood recently. So, focus is f-word number 3.) OK, that's funny. Not really, but it was over pretty fast and didn't cause any particular pain.

Then he veers away from a suddenly cliche process of word formation (yup, he's using a cliche to gripe about cliches) to complain about other things, including the use of initial stress on the noun défense, rather than defénse. He called it "an assault on the ear" (maybe plural — I wasn't close to the radio and my hearing aid battery is getting weak). I've always assumed this was a dialect borrowing: The southern pattern of initial stress presumably found its way into general sports talk via the strong southern presence in football (maybe basketball too). At some point, for whatever sociolinguistic reason, northern players, coaches, and announcers picked this up and it has lost its regional character in the context of sports. The result is an interesting little footnote about contemporary American English: A lot of non-southerners now have a split between national defénse and red zone défense. (For the historical linguists out there, it reminds us again that stress and other prosodic properties often don't show Neogrammarian regularity, but instead can change word-by-word.) Get with the program, Frank: Literate, articulate guys are more aware of this stuff.

Still, I have to agree with Deford that the time is past for laughing about the two guys with a big 'D' and a piece of picket fence standing up at football game to urge the home team to stop the visiting team's óffense (*offénse).

*Wow, speaking of high tone: The spellchecker in blogger doesn't like 'cliche' but 'cliché' is good.


Ben Zimmer said...

In football usage at least, focus will have to get in line behind yet another f-word.

Ben Zimmer said...

Also, the guys on those Miller Lite ads are way ahead of Deford on the "D-Fence" complaints.

Mr. Verb said...

Oh, good point ... as I hinted, I thought that using the now-cliche X-word to complain about cliches was pretty silly. I'd forgotten about those Miller ads.

I guess he was having an off week.