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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

slam dunk

(1990’s | athletese | “sure bet,” “sure thing,” “lead-pipe cinch,” “guarantee(d)”)

“Dunk,” now. It seems to come from Pennsylvania Dutch in colonial days. The Dunkers (or Dunkards) were a German sect that believed in full immersion baptism, like the Southern Baptists, a more successful sect historically that took fervor much further. The name was in use by the mid-eighteenth century. According to Matthews’s Dictionary of Americanisms and Random House, the use of “dunk” as a verb came along just after the Civil War. That use has shown staying power, now immortalized in the name of our leading donut chain. As late as 1970, “dunk” was not in common use as a basketball term; by 1980 it was essential. Our figurative use of “slam dunk” today is descended from basketball. It is invariable, even though there are, or were, other equivalents in basketball jargon. Either “slam” or “dunk” can be used without its complement, “jam” is a common verb (less common as a noun), and you used to hear “stuff” (still used sometimes as a verb) or even “stuff shot.”

Dunking wasn’t even legal in college basketball when I was a boy, but certain NBA players gave the practice great cachet. One thinks of Julius Erving (Dr. J), David Thompson, or Darryl Dawkins, who was known for destroying backboards. Now it’s not a specialty any more. Just about every college or professional player is capable of dunking, with or without choreography. The rise of the phrase in sports journalism made it possible for it to pass into more fanciful use, so that the phrase now refers to a can’t miss proposition, or something so easy you can’t mess it up. (Actually, it is possible to miss a dunk, and it even happens occasionally, but it remains the highest percentage shot in basketball.) Once in a while, it is used as a verb to mean “ram” or “force.” In aviation, a “slam-dunk approach” refers to an unusually steep descent to the runway.

As I recall, “slam dunk” earned cliché status during the Clinton impeachment proceeding, but it was certainly around before then. It became omnipresent during the hearings, when Republican Congressmen gloated relentlessly over their “slam-dunk” case against Clinton for perjury. Turned out to be more of a free throw clanking off the front rim. Anybody remember Henry Hyde any more? (Conveniently, his initials also stood for “Homewreckin’ Hypocrite.”) Clinton-haters positively salivated over the president’s disgrace, which only seemed to increase his standing with the rest of the electorate; Clinton remains popular now, but Ken Starr will never sit on the Supreme Court. Our language got a little boost from his travails, gaining for good this punchy, spondaic expression. It enjoyed a renaissance during the run-up to the Iraq War, thanks to CIA director George Tenet’s claim of conclusive evidence that Saddam Hussein was harboring unguessed (turned out they were nothing but guessed — no one ever found any) caches of weapons of mass destruction. Another overconfident Republican overstating his case.

The expression always pretends to certainty — and therefore may be used to disguise its absence — we know this is the moral thing to do, or it’s what the people want, or we have overwhelming evidence that it’s true. But in the incidences above, a slam-dunk case proceeds on the basis of violence, of exasperated righteousness left with no choice but to take drastic action. That seems to be present at least as an undercurrent when people use this phrase. Since it is often used in legal or faux-legal contexts, it has an adversarial bent. Furthermore, your opponent must be willfully blind or gumming up the works to ignore the overwhelming evidence against him. So when you use the phrase, it generally conveys a flavor of retribution, even taunting — it strikes me as loaded that way.

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