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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

real MVP

(2000’s | athletese | “unsung hero”)

The Most Valuable Player Award was invented in 1931 by the Baseball Writers Association of America (majestically abbreviated BBWAA). I have not been able to determine when the abbreviation “MVP” slipped out of its baseball backwater and into the mainstream of the language. I recall hearing it as a boy and knowing what it meant (I was a baseball fan) and assuming that the adults around me understood it, too. That’s a gap of forty-plus years; how many of those years went by before most people grasped the expression?

Although the formal name of the award might lead you to believe otherwise, baseball’s MVP is loosely considered synonymous with the best player (often on the pennant winner), or at least the one with the gaudiest statistics. There are many ways a player can be valuable to the team that don’t attract much attention, and such traits almost never get considered when it’s time to vote for the MVP. The expression “real MVP” takes that a step further by acknowledging directly someone heretofore unrecognized. Arguably, the real MVP is the person who should have been the MVP all along, but wasn’t because most of us fall for the cheap and flashy. Thus, “real MVP” implies that the nominal winner did not deserve the award. The more valuable player either was truly better in some way, or provided essential support.

A fine example of the latter came from Kevin Durant, in an acceptance speech that has done more than anything else to push “real MVP” into non-athletic contexts. While the word was available for such uses before Durant came along, it had remained primarily an athlete’s term for decades, mostly used to refer to another player, but possibly to a coach, the fans, or even a handicapped kid that inspired the team. Durant cited his mother as “the real MVP” upon being presented with the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award because without her devotion, work, and self-denial, he never would have reached the pinnacle. The fact that the internet soon swallowed the phrase and vomited it back as a series of memes each more trivial than the last in no way diminishes Durant’s sincerity or character, or his powers of propulsion; the phrase has become much more common since he gave a shout-out to his mother in 2014.

My sense is that “real MVP” was little used outside sports talk before 2000, and probably for a while after it, too. It spread quietly during the first decade of the millennium, but it came more naturally to refer to a designated driver, or your sainted mother, or anyone who gets you out of a jam that way in 2010 than in 2000. In everyday speech, “real MVP” need not imply injustice or misunderstanding. It names anyone who performs a valuable service for one person or a number of people. The sense that the real MVP is laudable, even essential, remains, but not the notion that a less deserving person gets all the publicity.

For the sake of completeness I note that MVP also stands for “minimum viable product,” a barebones version of whatever your big idea is that allows you to test its feasibility or popularity. Such use of the abbreviation seems unlikely to overtake the established phrase within the next millennium, but if it does, I’ll take credit.

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