A Few Words For March Madness Fans

by Kevin Burton

   You hear the word “hoops” what comes to mind?

   Are you thinking earrings? Are you thinking bureaucracy, extra obstacles you have to jump through? Or are you thinking basketball?

   No right answer to this, we try to appeal to all types of readers here. But for me, it’s basketball.

  In honor of March Madness I turn to the “words at play” feature on the Merriam-Webster website for look at some basketball words.

   These are words/phrases that pertain to the game but also had, or maybe still have, a place in wider society. “Hoops” is not one of their words by the way.

   I hope this give some more casual fans more of a clue what the screaming is all about. 

   Slam dunk is the term for a player forcing the ball directly through the rim, with one or both hands.

  “By the 1980s the slam dunk had become part of our general vernacular, and was being used to describe something that was assured to happen, or something that was thought to be easy,” Merriam-Webster wrote. I have also seen the word layup used that way.

   “The full-court press, is a particularly tenacious form of defense that entails harrying and hounding the team in possession of the ball for the entirety of the court. By the 1960s the phrase had taken on the additional meaning of ‘an all-out effort or offensive.’”

   An alley-oop is a pass thrown close to and above the basket so that a team mate can slam it through. The term may have been used in other sports though, according to the dictionary.

   “The roots of this word run throughout several sports, and there is no one field which may claim the entire parentage of alley oop. It is thought to have been formed in imitation of allez-oop (a cry among circus acrobats), which itself probably comes from the French allez, meaning ‘to go.’ Alley-oop was in occasional use among circus performers in the early 20th century.”

   “The word jump shot did not originate in basketball, as it was also term for a type of shot in billiards since the middle of the 19th century. However, given the disparity between the level of popularity enjoyed by billiards and basketball, it is not surprising that the term should have come to be more identified with the latter than the former.”

   Never heard of that. Any jump shots I made on the pool table were entirely unintentional, I assure you. 

   Playmaker has seen its meaning go through a number of shifts, according to Merriam-Webster. It first had the literal meaning on one who made plays. “In the 1920s the word was appropriated by the world of hockey, and used to describe a player who was skilled in facilitating scoring by others on his team.”

   After that sportswriters began using the term for basketball players as well. 

   “Although it would appear to be employed primarily to refer to players in these two sports, playmaker is occasionally used to refer to participants in other areas, both athletic and otherwise. Since at least the 1940s it has been used to refer to someone who facilitates things and is often seen paired with political.”

   “Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, the Senate Democratic majority leader then, was the central political playmaker,” wrote The Christian Science Monitor, April 6, 1962.

   The article then mentions point guard, the player responsible for directing the offense, without saying how the term might be used outside of basketball. It could be used in the same context as playmaker, but I’ve never heard it used that way.

   A brick is a badly missed shot in basketball, one not launched with any apparent skill. 

   “The humble brick has been put to many uses in English over the centuries. The word came to our language from the Middle Dutch bricke, and has retained its original meaning (a block of clay that has been shaped into a rectangle, and is used for building purposes) for more than 500 years now.

   “The basketball sense of brick is one of the more recent ones, with written evidence dating from the beginning of the 1970s.”

   The article doesn’t mention this, but any misguided or improperly-floated idea that never had a chance of being accepted, could also be called a brick. 

   “Perhaps because of the similarity it has with hipsterhoopster may well strike many people as a word of recent coinage. In fact, neither of these words are particularly new: hipster has been used since the 1930s, and hoopster has been used to describe a basketball player for over a hundred years now.”

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