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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: athletes

bring to the table

(1980’s | businese | “have to offer,” “start out with”)

What one brings to the table by definition benefits the party already there. It is a positive term, rarely used ironically, indicating qualities that will improve an existing situation or resolve a problem. In a job interview, it’s the thing that makes you desirable. Among athletes, it’s what will make the team into a winner. In diplomacy, it’s a bargaining chip that helps move the process along. Generally, it’s what you can do to help. There was a time when it might connote baggage as well as benefit; what you brought to the table was simply what you had, good or bad. But since 1980 or so, it has taken on the favorable connotation exclusively. The phrase arose in business and government; nowadays athletes also use it a lot. To my ear at least, when a phrase becomes popular among athletes, it has stepped irrevocably over the border into cliché country. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it has to do with the fact that professional sports figures are quick to adopt new expressions from each other and use them frequently thereafter, rarely with any imagination or creativity.

You have to keep your eye on the table, because idioms that rely on that word come from different places. “Bring to the table” calls to mind negotiation: the big table everyone sits around to hammer out an agreement. “Everything on the table” almost certainly comes out of gambling — the moment of showing your hand. “Seat at the table” could come from either, or from the dining room. To get anywhere at any table, a seat is the minimum requirement. Waiters bring things to the table all the time, but that sort of pig-headed literal-mindedness doesn’t get the blog written. In all these expressions, the table by now is purely metaphorical; when an actual table is involved, we understand it to be a play on words.

There’s a certain kind of new expression that develops a settled usage even though it is not particularly distinctive and could occur in everyday conversation without any reference to the specialized meaning. That description is a little vague, so let me offer some examples: “at the end of the day,” “be careful out there,” “do the math,” “don’t even think about it,” “good luck with that,” “I’ll shut up now,” “in a good place,” “play well with others,” “smartest guy in the room,” “what’s your point?.” All of these expressions have in common an ordinariness, almost a triviality, that allows us to notice, if we think about it, that they could just as well have no meaning beyond that carried by the word string itself. And yet, when we hear such phrases, we grasp an extra dimension, so that even if the sense of the expression is not much different from the literal sense of the words, we know we are hearing a distinct expression. There must be a process that allows such utterances to transmogrify into idioms, but I don’t understand it. Is there any way to predict that “I’ll shut up now” would take on a universe of connotation while “I’ll go to the store” (so far) has not?


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show daylight between

(1980’s | athletese | “distance oneself from,” “move away from,” “disagree with”)

Now primarily a political term and has been for at least twenty years. It comes out of equestrian sports: space between rider and saddle or between two horses on a track. It goes back a long way among other athletes as well; Lighter found citations as far back as 1903 in sports talk. When a running back sees daylight, he’d better gain some yardage. Before that, “daylights” could mean “eyes” or “guts” (as in beating the daylights out of someone), an odd pairing. (“Lights” is a very archaic term for lungs, as in “liver and lights.”) Daylights plural and daylight singular don’t seem to have a lot to do with each other.

In sports lingo, “daylight” just means there is a gap between two things: a baseball and a foul pole, say, or two defenders. When you see light you know the objects aren’t touching. That particular meaning was next adopted into politics; by 1980, political figures felt free to use “daylight” in the athlete’s sense. By 1990, executives had it in their arsenals, too. Today, it is still primarily the property of athletes and politicians; according to LexisNexis, it turns up infrequently in any other context. Among athletes, “daylight” might be good or bad, according to the circumstances. But in politics, “daylight” always indicates antagonism of some kind. If it’s someone you want it known that you’re in conflict with, you may “put” or “create” daylight between yourself and the other. When an official wants to affirm unity with another official, she says there is “no daylight” between them. It can exist (or fail to exist) between organizations or countries, too.

Politicians, magpies that they are, love to steal the characteristic expressions of athletes, just as they love to hijack military jargon. I have covered at least half a dozen examples: payback, you’re history, raise the bar, slam dunk, punt, game changer, man up, and there are a few more that are less clear-cut. Politicians, especially male ones, may feel a toughness deficiency and look for ways to cover it up. Taking expressions from athletes and soldiers exploits their generally acknowledged masculine superiority and delivers to the audience an (often unmerited) impression of strength, vigor, and determination. I’ve noted before that politicians like to draw on military vocabulary, but their yen for athletese may also be worth exploring. There are other factors at work: “daylight” sounds like a pleasant, uplifting word, and the way it veils animosity also makes it attractive to the politically inclined.

“Daylight” should not be confused with “sunlight” or “sunshine,” words that in political discourse are used to talk about openness or transparency in government proceedings. The use of “daylight” in such a context would suggest a slip of the tongue or confusion on the part of the speaker.

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(1980’s | athletese | “revenge,” “comeuppance,” “just desserts”)

It seems odd to me that this word came to mean what it does as late as it did. “Pay back” has never been the idiom of choice when it comes to getting back at someone else, but instances of it do turn up in many times and places. Surely it would be entitled to the same shift in part of speech as its financial counterpart, which had several nominal uses in the mid-seventies: at the most literal, “act of repaying,” or “restitution,” but often it meant “return on investment” or “reward” — in other words, “payoff.” A related adjectival use was found in phrases like “payback period,” defined as the amount of time required to make back the money invested. (In other words, how long it will be before the investment pays for itself.) That phrase is important in corporate accounting, and it may be shortened informally to “payback” (as in “payback of three years”).

These uses of the word are still around, but “payback” has taken on the more ominous meaning of “vengeance.” I found but two or three instances of the term before 1980 in LexisNexis in this sense, all in sports-related contexts. Sport is a natural breeding ground for retribution because of its competitive nature and because of how leagues work, organizing schedules that match the same teams against each other over and over. They beat us last year, but this year we’ll get payback. By the end of the eighties, athletes were using “payback time” in such contexts, which until then had been an occasional variant of “payback period.” As late as 2000, “payback” seems to have been mainly an athlete’s word, but now it has spread through the language. It made its mark next in political discourse, not surprisingly; you will hear the phrase “political payback,” which always refers to settling a score. When Donald Trump tells his supporters that it’s payback time, part of what he means is “I’m going to help you get back everything the [fill in the blank] have taken away from you.” It ain’t just money.

It has occurred to me that “payback” ought to mean rendering the service bought with a bribe or similar corruption, influenced by “kickback,” just as it sometimes is influenced by “payoff.” You see that every now and then, but it has never become common. It’s a scenario that arises rather often, so having another word to cover it would be helpful. Yet “payback” never seems to have stepped into those shoes. Odd, I call it.

In sports and especially in politics, “payback” is never neutral. It is almost always used to exult in the defeat or destruction of a rival. Although it appeals to a rough justice, payback need not be proportionate; messing the opponent up more than they messed you up to begin with may be desirable and is in any case part of the game. Winning a round carries with it the risk that you will lose the ground gained and maybe more during the next battle. Sometimes you hear “Payback’s a bitch, ain’t it?” The question is uttered with a sneer, a means of rubbing it in when you have skunked your opponent. But rhetorical flourishes are not required; “payback” in its nature bears meanness and resentment, a sense that one was bested unfairly and has no choice but to stick it to the aggressor. The only way to redress the grievance is to make the victor suffer at least as much as they made you suffer.

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no harm, no foul

(1980’s | athletese | “no harm done,” “nothing to worry about,” “let’s forget the whole thing”)

I’m afraid the obvious origin is the true one. This expression was first used by basketball referees and sportswriters to describe a “philosophy” of officiating; here is a lovely definition from 1958: “if the contact does not interfere with the progress of the game, a foul shall not be called.” The earliest uses I found attributed the maxim to referees in the Big Ten Conference, in America’s heartland. “No harm, no foul” remained the property of basketball people until around 1980, when it started to creep into the language of politics and law. It’s not hard to see that the expression might appeal to lawyers, in that it summarizes an important legal principle: There must be real injury — not just the potential for it or some theoretical wrong — or there can be no tort. The phrase is commonly used now in the law to denote an argument or strategy designed to undercut plaintiffs by demonstrating that they have suffered no damage. If no one has really been hurt, there’s no infraction, and we can all get on with our lives.

It’s an awfully convenient argument, and requiring a plaintiff to prove incontrovertible injury makes redress less probable. Harm isn’t always visible to the naked eye, and if the malefactor is clever, or powerful, enough, he or she may be able to do great harm without warning. If the government invades your privacy, or a corporation poisons your water, the effects may not be felt for years, but they are real. Sometimes “no harm, no foul” is used when there is obvious harm, as way of obscuring it, or denying culpability. Thus the expression has developed a definite dark side in legalese; now it may go beyond time-honored principle to something a lot sleazier: “Yes, we broke the rules, but the same damage would have occurred if we hadn’t, so we’re not liable.” Only the government or another large institution can afford to take this position in court, illustrating another venerable legal principle: money and power almost always win.

In everyday speech, the phrase has become a stock response to an apology, loosely translated as “It doesn’t bother me, so you don’t have to feel guilty.” As Urban Dictionary notes, it has taken on a kinship with “No problem” or “no worries” to complement its persistent echo of the older “no harm done.” More broadly, “no harm, no foul” has become an all-purpose dismissal, with shades of meaning from “not my problem” to “everything’s fine.” These days, it is casually tossed off in myriad contexts, not just among athletes and lawyers, but chefs, farmers, art critics, you name it. And it has become almost empty of any specific meaning. It’s one of dozens of signals that there’s no need to take offense, or we’re all cool. What little rigor it had during its sheltered life among the basketball referees has vanished. And why should we care, after all? No harm, no foul.

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(1980’s | therapese? | “basic assumptions,” “world view,” “framework,” “preconceived notions,” “idées fixes”)

This is one of those expansive words that has grown fat with use. “Mindset” goes back to the early twentieth century, but it didn’t spread until the seventies, when according to Google Books it started to appear regularly, particularly in writing having to do with therapy and religion, or politics. Now it is used everywhere, though if LexisNexis is to be believed, it is especially popular among athletes these days, a backhanded homage to the great Yogi Berra’s observation that ninety per cent of baseball is half mental. In recent years, some therapists have tried to retake control of the word by popularizing a standoff between “fixed mindset” (belonging to those who think they can’t get any smarter than they are) and “growth mindset” (those who rejoice in breaking through their mental barriers and blocks). It’s not clear to me how reputable this Manicheanism is, but it has gained traction in the on-line community.

We must pause to define the term, which I will do with reference to authorities. In 1983, William Safire described the evolution of “mindset”: “Tendency, attitude, or inclination used to be the primary meaning, akin to frame of mind; now the primacy goes to fixed state of mind or predetermined view.” The OED highlights “established set of attitudes, esp. regarded as typical of a particular group’s social or cultural values.” Safire’s contention, which is correct in my humble view, may result from the ambiguity, not to say polyguity, of the word “set,” which means “group” or “collection,” but also means “immobile” or “deep-rooted.” It’s a list of beliefs or assumptions that causes our minds to move predictably along certain paths, or it’s just the mind set in its ways.

When athletes use the word, it usually comes closest to “(mental) approach”, the quality that allows you to concentrate on the game and bear down harder than your opponents. Your mindset may need to change, or you may have trouble keeping the right mindset on the field. This does not correspond precisely to either of the primary definitions cited above, but it is related to the “growth mindset” discussed in the first paragraph. True, “mindset” doesn’t take prepositions as readily as “approach,” but a player might “bring the right mindset to the game.” The new word certainly does not preclude all the old clichés dear to athletes for generations: focus on winning, all I care about is the team, don’t worry about things you can’t control, etc.

There is a class of expression that lies dormant for decades, even centuries, and then bursts into the vocabulary. Other examples I have covered: “holistic,” “comfort zone,” and “artisanal” are twentieth-century examples, and some are older still, like “hurtful,” “ramp up,” or “overthink.” The OED cites “mindset” as early as 1909, but the word didn’t hit its stride for another sixty or seventy years after that. It seems like it ought to have come from the students of altered consciousness that had their heyday in the sixties (Timothy Leary talked about “set and setting”), but as far as I can tell its rise cannot be attributed to any particular guru, professor, or Esalenite.

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trash talk

(1990’s | athletese | “needling,” “insults,” “bad or offensive language,” “insolence”)

“Trash talk,” meaning the banter or vituperation athletes exchange during a game, developed and grew out of the sports world. During the eighties, the phrase was encountered only in sportswriting; by the mid-nineties, it was appearing in political and arts journalism, and its denotation was quietly starting to spread. One early addition was the idea that trash talk was characteristic of defiant kids or adolescents. It was established enough by 2000 that it could be used jocularly in articles about municipal garbage collection; it had also been baptized as a verb by then (one that takes an indirect object, so you can trash talk someone). A lesser meaning that may have disappeared, but was available from the late eighties until at least 2000, comes from the rise of the sort of low-taste talk shows hosted by Morton Downey, Jr. or Geraldo Rivera. That usage was an adjective phrase, as in “trash-talk show.”

The phrase first conveyed slurs uttered in the heat of battle, with intent to distract, intimidate, or relieve tension. The fundamental purpose of trash talk is keeping the other player’s mind on something other than the game. And some great players have been notable for their skill in trash talking, particularly in football and basketball, where close quarters and violence open avenues for verbal exchange. But it doesn’t have to be clever; it can just be raw hostility designed to put the other guy back on his heels. Derision is the mainspring of trash talk, and the phrase always conveys animus. In politics, the idea isn’t to throw your opponent off stride so much as to blacken his character, so “trash talk” used in politics is a close cousin, perhaps an example of, negative campaigning. While the expression still turns up frequently in the sports pages, it has grown and spread quickly — the tabloids love it — and has taken on a range of meanings from empty rhetorical gestures to language offensive to a group (rather than a particular person) to slander (that is, discourse designed to trash another person). It may be something to take very seriously or something unworthy of the least attention.

I’ve always been a little puzzled by the formulation, because the primary meaning of “trash” is well established: something of no value. If the word were carried over literally, “trash talk” would mean idle boast or wasted words, vain statements with no action back of them. But the whole point about idioms is they’re not literal, isn’t it? And trash means other things, such as filth or perversity. As a verb, it means degrade, as in a reputation or a place. So “trash talk” may not be so opaque after all. “Talk trash” is older; I can hear it in my southern relatives’ voices: “Don’t talk trash!” “Trash” in that context meant nonsense, but it also indicated malice, so the command instructed us not to smear other people behind their backs. But it didn’t mean “engage in trash talk.” The athletes turned it around and made it theirs. I’m not sure if the rise of the phrase coincided with the rise of the phenomenon — that is, more and more ballplayers were taking verbal swipes at each other, creating conditions that demanded new expression. When I was a boy that sort of thing was still considered unseemly, at least among older fans. Players were expected to keep quiet, do their jobs, and not fraternize. True, there were always a few players known for yakking away during games, but it was considered a mark against them. Now such carrying on is much too ordinary to count against even the chattiest cager. And you don’t have to sit in the first row to hear it any more; players will cheerfully report it after the game.

One phenomenon that might have helped this phrase grow beyond the playing field was the rise of internet flame wars in the late nineties. Sometimes “trash talk” was used to refer directly to anonymous and (therefore?) hate-filled on-line rantings. Even when it wasn’t, the idea that it’s fun and sometimes necessary to flay a person you’ve never met gained currency, and the phrase became more useful as the idea took hold that our culture consists largely of insults bandied back and forth, whether between chat-room warriors or celebrities.

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raise the bar

(1990’s | businese (faux-athletese) | “raise standards,” “one-up” “outdo (oneself)” “make progress”)

I was unsure whether this expression would qualify as post-1980, but its emergence traces a distinct path across the last few decades: first unmistakable sighting in LexisNexis, 1985 (Governor Thomas Kean of New Jersey), gradual rise for the next ten years, then boom! That path is not in the least atypical. Picked up first by politicians and executives, it got a boost around 1990 from the newly influential personal computer industry. By 2000, it had raised the roof. I’m not sure when I first encountered it, but I remember using it as if old hat shortly after 2000. Before 1995, the phrase was normally followed by a few words of amplification. So an executive might bloviate about raising the bar of excellence. Or a manager might blather on about raising the bar for (or “of,” or “on”) customer service, for example. But within a few years it could be uttered as easily by itself. Like most new expressions, it didn’t settle right away into its most compact form. It sounds much more natural than it did in 1995 to hear it without appendages, but it still takes them readily.

It’s suspiciously obvious, but I’m still inclined to think the expression descends from track and field, as in the high jump or pole vault. In competition, athletes raise the bar to test themselves and make it harder for everyone else; “raising the bar” means outstripping the competition, and that is its general implication today when used as a set phrase. It can be used neutrally to mean “improve one’s performance,” but it’s far more likely to come at someone else’s expense. Even when educators talk about improving test scores (or, heaven forbid, learning) and they urge students and teachers to raise the bar — meaning everyone should do better rather than some getting ahead by pushing others down — the competition is students in other countries. (For reasons unclear to me, educators are oddly fond of this phrase. One expects businessmen and public officials to resort early and often to athletic expressions, but not the educational profession.)

The phrase also has a legal meaning, something like “activate or invoke a prohibition,” as in “raise the bar of estoppel” (don’t ask me to explain what that means). In order to take the Fifth, you have to demonstrate that you have likely engaged in some kind of criminal behavior; you can’t just pretend that any old embarrassing answer is incriminating. But once you’ve demonstrated that, you can “raise the bar” against testifying against yourself. Fascinating, but probably not the origin of today’s expression. Another sport, weightlifting, yields a more likely influence: “raise the bar” just means “lift the barbell.” The higher you raise the bar, the better your score. So that could have been a factor in the genesis of the phrase.

From recent headlines: asks certain employees to act as “bar raisers,” who help screen job candidates and work with management to determine who should be hired. “Bar raiser” turns up sporadically in LexisNexis, with Amazon providing a recent boost. It may start cropping up more often, in which case we’ll hear “that’s a real bar-raiser” about as often as “that really raises the bar.” Amish people in the audience will be excused for being confused. A campaign to pressure Hershey to use fair-trade chocolate is called “Raise the Bar.” Lots of organizations use the name, actually. “Raise the bar” became natural very quickly, back there in the nineties, and we’ve adopted it with little fuss or hand-wringing, even those of us who notice new expressions as a matter of crabbed habit.

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how I roll

(2000’s | journalese? | “my way or thing,” “what I like,” “how I do things”)

I learned this expression from my girlfriend’s daughter. It had its day in our household last year and has since receded, although it will undoubtedly rear its head again. The kids didn’t invent it, though. The earliest large-scale media event I found that employed the phrase was a Pepsi commercial during the 2005 Super Bowl. I came across some older examples, but it seems safe to say that the expression gained a lot of ground after that. By the end of 2009, a writer on dismissed the phrase as out of date, but that was probably true only among the avant-garde; most of us were just getting started. The pronoun varies; any combination of persons and numbers is possible, but I, we, and they seem to predominate. Oddly, one finds relatively few examples of the the third-person singular, but the others all make their presences felt. It can also be used in the negative to decry an action that one does not condone.

“How I roll” or “the way I roll” has an invariable meaning. It follows the statement of a habit, preference, or wish that the speaker thinks might raise eyebrows, and pre-empts any doubts or objections. The phrase is not defensive; in fact, it implies pride in the behavior or belief, underlain by a healthy dose of “whether you like it or not.” Raise all the eyebrows you want; I don’t care. It’s supposed to feel insouciant or devil-may-care rather than emphatic or truculent, and as far as I can tell it usually does.

I don’t know which of the many meanings of “roll” deserves to be honored as the true ancestor of this expression. Dice? Dough? Drums? Cigarettes? Eyes? Tape? Bandages? Along? Over? Out? Up? On the river? With the punches? Rock and? Does it go back to driving somehow? I like the idea of a defiant French student defending her pronunciation of the letter r with a swift “That’s how I roll!” Or maybe a mugger explaining his technique for relieving drunken sailors of their money. Some of these possibilities are sillier than others, but none of them seems absurd on its face.

roll with it

(1990’s | athletese? | “take it as it comes,” “go with the flow,” “make the best of it”)

A phrase betokening resignation but not despair, suggesting the will to carry on amid adversity. It indicates relaxation rather than passivity. The origin of the expression is not as clear-cut as I thought. It seems most likely to descend from the old boxing exhortation, “roll with the punches”; another possible parent is martial arts, rather than the sweet science. But it could also come from sailing (as in rolling with the waves, but that’s not as idiomatic), or even something more cosmic (as the earth rolls around the sun, we have no choice but to roll with it). I still think the first is most likely, mostly because the phrase goes invariably with unpleasant or frustrating circumstances. Nobody ever rolls with winning the lottery; it has to be something that makes your life more difficult. And it usually is a change in conditions imposed from the outside, like bad weather, a legal verdict, or other people’s mistakes. The phrase may be used in response to a change in oneself, as in the diagnosis of an incurable disease, but only when the obstacle is presumed to be beyond our control. If you can’t make it better, you roll with it; if you can improve by applying yourself, it is assumed in our self-help culture that you will.

The expression is popular among athletes and has been for a long time, but I found examples from therapy, education, music, and popular culture as far back as 1970. That’s why I’m skeptical of a tidy origin myth for this term. “Roll with it” can be read as a distillation of the first part of the Serenity Prayer, which is closely associated with Alcoholics Anonymous: “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Rolling with it means not getting wrought up about things you can’t do anything about. Just deal with it and keep moving, because resistance makes it worse. We need the stock phrase, because it’s something we have to remind ourselves to do — it feels counterintuitive, like steering into a skid. And yet it’s certainly a handy rule for a species as adaptable as ours.

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lose it

(1990’s | athletese | “lose control,” “go berserk,” “break down,” “snap”)

When I first considered this phrase, I thought of it primarily as indicating fits of rage. Now that I’ve looked around on LexisNexis, I’d say that the phrase refers to grief and rage about equally often, and occasionally laughter. The “it” lost is self-restraint or inhibitions, but implicitly, it seems to me, you’re really talking about consciousness, or sanity. A temporary but complete failure of all the usual rules and strictures that hold us back. (The whole point of the phrase is that no antecedent is required; it’s a set expression that permits you to avoid being specific. The experience is too powerful to classify, and only the ultimate abstraction, the impersonal third-person pronoun, will suffice.) When you lose it, you lapse into despair, or yell and scream and say taboo things, or even batter or kill another person. When you use it to talk about rage, it lasts only a few moments, but when it’s grief, it can unspool over a longer period, as in Ben Vereen’s statement from 1989: “After I lost my daughter in December [1987] I lost it completely and I got really bad.” The idea that the process begins with a single event remains, but here “losing it” goes on and on, as grief-induced depression makes it impossible to maintain even a semblance of normal life. Part of the point, too, is that the experience is baffling or indescribable in retrospect. When you lose it, all you can say afterwards is “I lost it,” and even if there was a proximate cause for the outburst or collapse, it still seems unaccountable, inexplicable.

Most of the earliest instances I found, from the 1980’s, were uttered by athletes, especially tennis players and golfers — two high-pressure, tantrum-prone sports. “Lose it” sounds to me like it belongs to the vigorous but simplistic strain of athletese, like “man up” or “my bad.” (There’s a more poetic group of athletes’ additions to our language over the last forty years, which includes “on the bubble” and “on the same page.”) Outfielders and goaltenders have long had “I lost it” in their vocabulary, meaning “lost sight of the ball, puck, etc.,” as when a baseball player says, “I lost it in the sun.” That well-established phrase may have made it a bit easier for the new usage to horn in, although there’s no obvious connection between the two, except that they are both specific cases of the very general phenomenon of “losing control” or “losing track.” As far as I can tell, the phrase bears no relation to “use it or lose it,” another locution from the world of sport.

If you’ll excuse a digression, my favorite linguistic innovation among athletes is what I call the second-person first person. That’s when tonight’s hero meets reporters after the game and describes the big home run: “You’re waiting on a fastball, and you watch the spin coming out of the pitcher’s hand, and you’re just trying to get a good swing . . .” (A recent example from New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, quoted in Newsday, May 12, 2012: “That all comes with the territory, and if you can’t handle that, I shouldn’t be in this position.” The awkward shift in person points up how unnatural this construction is.) This grammatical formation is quite common among athletes; I haven’t researched the question but I suspect it evolved to allow sports stars to talk about themselves without sounding self-centered and egotistical. Or maybe it’s a modern version of the old convention of using “one” for “I.” The present tense is also characteristic, presumably just the old storyteller’s trick for imparting tension and atmosphere to something that has already happened.

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