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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

punt

(1990’s? | athletese | “delay,” “give up”)

I still can’t remember when I first heard this word used figuratively. It must have been before 2000. I’ve found several examples from the 1990’s and a few even earlier in LexisNexis, but it’s not clear that it was already widespread, or that readers instantly understood the image. This expression borrowed from American football seems to turn up most often in political contexts, reflecting politicians’ preference for athletic or military jargon. I don’t think it has anything to do with the British use of “punt” as “wager” or “gamble,” much less the former Irish unit of currency. Usage note: “punt” is used occasionally as a noun, meaning something like “obvious delaying tactic” or “obvious dereliction of duty,” and I suspect that will grow nominally more familiar.

When you punt, what are you doing? I thought of the word as meaning primarily “throw in the towel,” but when I looked around a little bit I realized that it is used more commonly to mean “defer action,” as in Rep. Steny Hoyer’s (D-MD) comment last year on Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) debt ceiling legislation: it “punts the ball down the road.” Used this way, it’s a rather inelegant variant of “kick the can down the road,” which doesn’t appear in Google Books until 1988. And “punt” has been used that way for a while, as several citations from the 1990’s show. My sense was that a few years ago, “punt” was much more likely to mean “let it go” than “put it off” or “fob it off on the next generation.” But I was wrong; it was used that way as far back as April 13, 1990 (Orange County Register): “Tax experts have some simple advice for those who plan to spend the weekend attempting to beat Monday’s tax-filing deadline. Punt.” That is, delay — file for an extension. But in its more dramatic sense, it’s a response to an insoluble problem, where the only answer is to extricate oneself as quickly as possible. Sometimes it’s a straightforward admission of failure.

When a football player punts, what is he doing? Pushing the other team away from the goal line when the primary means — racking up yardage — fails. In that sense, it likewise partakes of extrication, or limiting the damage resulting from an unfavorable situation. A punt might also be viewed as a delaying tactic — putting off the inevitable — but the analogy doesn’t hold quite as well. There’s no guarantee that a punt will slow the other team down much; they might throw a 60-yard pass on the first play from scrimmage, for example. When a football team punts, it means they’ve run out of options. It’s a last-ditch maneuver. That sense of urgency survives in our figurative use. When there’s nothing left you can think of to do — at your job, in your relationship, at war — you punt.

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