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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

dream team

(1990’s | athletese | “crack team or group”)

The second moldy oldie in a row, this term was well established by 1980 — it turns up in Google Books before 1950 — but primarily in athletic contexts, as in the high school basketball All-American team. Next came the arts, particularly writing about cinema, in which it referred to a group (usually a pair) of actors that either had appeared together in a film, or the critic merely wished they had. “Dream Team” was the title of a 1989 film, an ensemble comedy about mental patients, and well before that Joe McGinniss had used it as the title of a novel in 1972. So it’s not like there was anything novel about it when the revolution came in 1992, led by the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team. A spike in the use of the term coincided with a modestly significant grammatical evolution: the switch from indefinite article to definite was the inevitable result of THE Dream Team’s hijacking of the phrase. Before that, it was much more common to talk about “a dream team.” Ever since, while it’s still possible to use the indefinite article, you can’t really use the expression without reminding everyone of Magic, Larry, Michael, Scottie, and the rest. Another change: after 1992, the expression has almost invariably referred to a functioning group of players that actually competes against other teams. Before that, it was as likely to mean an imaginary team, like an all-time all-star squad, which could never actually be assembled to play a game.

Because of the longstanding use of “dream” as an adjective to mean “best imaginable,” this phrase doesn’t require a complicated origin story. The rhyme helped make it memorable, of course, like “supergroup” or “Mod Squad.” The most noteworthy thing about “dream team” is that it almost always refers to a temporary or even ad hoc assemblage, usually in response to a singular crisis or at least a big event, like the Olympics. Generally, we envision a roster of standouts in a particular field — doctors, fund managers, musicians forming a band — drawn together by a central agency or just uniting of their own accord for a specific purpose and a limited time, after which the team disbands and everyone goes back to what they were doing.

There are other things that “dream team” could mean, right? It can — but rarely does — signify the sports franchise one has loved all one’s life (“team of my dreams,” like “girl of my dreams”), or some kind of organization devoted to helping kids realize their ambitions. Why not a group of psychoanalysts working over a patient’s unconscious, or a foundation dedicated to ending the practice of judging people by the color of their skin, or a committee committed to passing the DREAM Act? The sense of “short-lived congeries of top performers” has made such plausibilities more or less impossible, not to mention eliminating the entire field of imaginary teams. Maybe of all the possibilities, that’s the signified that most needed a signifier. There are precedents in the movies — “The Magnificent Seven” and “Ocean’s 11” both came out in 1960, oddly enough — and the basic idea is as old as the Iliad. The persistence of the concept has driven out other possible associations. I don’t know anything about science fiction, but wasn’t there a story or novel about beings who work together to get inside the heads of certain characters (or everybody, what the hell) and control their dreams, whether doing emergency repairs like a utility crew or manipulating them for gain like evil geniuses? I have the feeling I’m describing the plot of a sci-fi monument without having the faintest idea what it is. Faithful readers?

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