Wednesday August 11th, 2010

What's the best word in sports? There's vigorous competition for the worst word in sports. When an Olympian wants to podium, I reach for the Imodium. I'm not a fan of batters plating base runners, either. (Plate, as a verb, belongs in restaurants, where you plate meals -- and crumb tables.) Thanks to announcers who can't say "tired," I suffer from fatigue fatigue.

But then I'm a word nerd. Every time I see a Livestrong bracelet, I want to change it to Livestrongly.

These words are, to my ears, among the worst in sports. But what are the best words? I don't mean the words we most long to hear, like "Play ball!" or "Beer here!" I mean those words that are beautiful in and of themselves. These are the most euphonious sounds ever devised by sports to please the human ear:

Slurve, for starters. Slurve is that hybrid pitch of slider and curve. I'm not always a fan of these shotgun word weddings, called portmanteaus: The spoon-fork combination known as the spork ought to be called a foon. It's more fun to say. That mixture of snow and drizzle that TV weathermen call "snizzle" sounds like Snoop Dogg saying "sneeze." (Speaking of which: I cannot hear the name of the Michigan State basketball coach -- "Tom Izzo" -- without thinking of Snoop Dogg saying "Tomato.")

The other great name for a pitch is Eephus, a nonsense word coined as a synonym for the blooper ball. Bloop, like bling, is a kind of onomatopoeia, to which sports have made many great contributions: Swish (for a made basket) and swoosh (for the Nike logo) and swish-swoosh, swish-swoosh (for the sound West Virginia basketball coach Bob Huggins makes when walking in his nylon tracksuit.)

I also love schuss, from skiing. And I love the word "skiing," with its consecutive letter i's perfectly positioned in the center, like two passengers on a chairlift.

It's a fine line with words, though: Hear schuss and you're transported to Banff or Gstaad or some other double-lettered ski resort. Hear shush, its nearly identical twin, and you're in your grade-school library getting your knuckles rapped by a ruler.

Rapped by a ruler: I have an affection -- an affliction -- for alliteration, which is why two of my favorite words in sports are stutterstep and fleaflicker. Once every decade or so, when an American football announcer has cause to use both words in a single sentence, I am chuffed -- which is English football announcer-speak for pleased, only a thousand times better.

American English can't claim all my favorite sports words. When the Expos moved to Washington, baseball lost more than a team in Montreal. It lost lovely French words for quotidian pitches: Glissante instead of slider, papillon for knuckler.

The beautiful game -- it sounds even better in Portuguese as joga bonito -- has its own beautiful lexicon. I could say fussball and Bundesliga all day, not to mention calcio and Scudetto. (Win more than one Italian soccer title, or Scudetto, and you have just plated Scudetti.)

If a gaffer looks gutted after an English soccer match -- his team having failed to go top-of-the-table -- I am a happy man.

So which word goes top-of-the-table on my life list of the best words in sports? For years I would have said Zamboni. It's a joy to utter, and hockey has a particular genius for Zs -- what Canadians call Zeds. (Think of Zarley Zalapski and Peter Zezel and Rick Zombo.) Z-words have a certain pizzazz: The World Cup gave us vuvuzela, a beautiful word for an ugly thing. Baseball dugouts are littered with chewed Bazooka, another beautiful word for an ugly thing. There is no displeasing way to say "Zizou", the nickname of former France midfielder Zinedine Zidane. Unless, that is, you're the equally Z-intensive Marco Materazzi, who was head-butted -- who was zed-butted? -- by Zidane in the 2006 World Cup final.

Zamboni, of course, is a proper name that became an object. And figure skating, that most Zamboni-dependent of sports, has a particular genius for taking people's names with letters from the back end of the alphabet -- Lutz and Axel and Salchow -- and making them part of the sport's everyday vernacular.

They're all great words. So are whiff and Wiffle and waffle-soled. But none of these is the best word in sports. The best word in sports -- and I've thought about this longer than you have -- is a collision of two other happy, life-affirming words: Fun and go.

The best word in sports evokes, in its sound, other happy sports words, among them: Mungo (the surname of Van Lingle Mungo, perhaps baseball's greatest name) and Mongo (the nickname of former Twins first baseman Craig Kusick) and Bango (the Milwaukee Bucks mascot) and bingo (as in "Little bingo," third-base-coach chatter for "Hit the ball") and Bingo-Bango-Bongo (a popular gambling game on the golf course).

The best word in sports is fungo. Say it out loud right now. Fungo. Now say Mungo and Mongo and Bango and Bingo and Zombo. Happier than you were a moment ago? Only in sports could Trey Wingo (of ESPN) report on Drey Mingo (of the Purdue women's basketball team). It's reason enough to love sports, this specialized language. Sports have given us -- in fungo and Mungo, in Wingo and Mingo -- a lingo. And it leaves this word nerd well-chuffed.

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