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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: climate change

sabermetrics

(1990’s | journalese (sports) | “percentage baseball”)

Few of my few devoted readers being baseball fans, it behooves me to offer some explanation of this odd word. (Don’t you always look for chances to use “behoove” in a sentence?) “Sabermeterics” refers to rigorous statistical analysis, which begins by establishing a reliable set of numbers measuring the performance of single players and entire teams and then reinterpreting them, taking them apart, recombining them, and generating new statistics, thought to be more revealing than the old ones. The word itself is an eponym, “saber” being derived from the acronym SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, founded in 1971 as a small organization devoted to using statistics to understand baseball history. Nowadays, sabermetrics attracts more attention as a way of helping executives and managers arrive at the most effective ways to evaluate and use their players, or decide how much they should be paid or traded for. Now other sports have been bitten by the bug, and the concept may even be familiar to non-fans; many baseball abstainers have heard of Michael Lewis’s book “Moneyball,” an account of the Oakland A’s under general manager Billy Beane, who adopted sabermetric insights wholesale and built a successful team with limited means. (If you missed that, there was a Simpsons episode in 2010.)

The term has always been credited to one of its leading practitioners, Bill James, who has — not single-handedly — revolutionized our understanding of baseball. (Full disclosure: my copy of his “New Historical Baseball Abstract” is pretty much disbound due to wear.) He began a one-man samizdat in the seventies, producing mimeographed collections of statistics and evaluations of major-league players; within a few years, the annual “Baseball Abstract” was picked up by a major publisher. Since then, he has written several compendious reference books that have laid out new frameworks for understanding how baseball works. In 2003 the Boston Red Sox hired him as a special advisor, a post he retains. He has indeed created some very complex and arcane statistics, but they have become common currency in discussions of baseball.

There are two inspiring stories here: James’s rise from outsider devoid of credentials to respected insider; and the triumph of empiricism and scholarship. The first proves that such storybook careers remain possible, but the latter, it seems to me, has wider cultural import. The SABR scholars, with little to offer except patient, unremunerated toil, have applied a version of the scientific method to baseball, emphasizing observation, data gathering, and statistical analysis in order to reach well-founded formulas for success. And to a great extent, it has worked. Baseball teams can no longer ignore sabermetrics; the insights of those nerdy statisticians — “statistorians” as a pre-James pioneer, L. Robert Davids, called them — have become so standard that ignoring them is a form of malpractice. It may give us a flicker of faith that in the face of a rising tide of obscurantism, that kind of work still proves its worth and compels respect, even in a game as anti-intellectual and tradition-bound as baseball.

Like the sciences, sabermetrics ultimately proves itself through successful prediction. Why is it that sabermetrics gets more credit than, say, climate science, despite the fact that the broad claims made by climatologists thirty years ago have been borne out? It’s a much smaller audience, for one thing; most people don’t care enough about baseball to set any store by ingenious statistical hermeneutics, but nearly everyone has an opinion about climate change. Baseball has a very long tradition of statistical study, and there have always been a few “figure Filberts,” as people like James used to be called; outside of baseball, most people don’t understand statistical analysis and don’t hold with it, unless it happens to confirm what they already believed. In baseball, the goal is to win, and winning is clearly defined and easily measured. That is much less true in the greater world, where a lot more people win by casting doubt on human-caused climate change than by taking issue with sabermetricians.

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new normal

(2000’s | therapese? | “how we do it now,” “the way it is now”)

This phrase has been bandied about quite a bit lately. Hurricane Sandy brought a flood of uses, as commentator upon commentator, including Gov. Christie of New Jersey, bemoaned the increasing frequency of destructive storms. An NBC sitcom of that title (with “The”) debuted this fall. Amazon.com’s Kindle Fire is riffing on the expression, using “Normal is going to change again” as an advertising motto. Perhaps most aptly, cantankerous cartoon duck Mallard Fillmore noted that “Chronic abuse of the term, ‘the new normal’ . . . is the new normal” (October 20, 2012 — before Sandy!). All right, all right. I hear America knocking, and I shall respond.

A short history of this expression: “New normals” is a statistical term meaning simply new set of norms or standards, against which observations are henceforth to be measured. It could be derived from theory, but more likely from experiment. It was used in the 1970’s in this sense and probably before. Then “new normal” had some life as an adjective phrase in the 1970’s and 1980’s — an example would be “new normal relations” in discussions of diplomacy — but rarely used on its own as a noun. Something happened around 1990. The phrase began to crop up as a noun in a specific context, that of a traumatic event like a natural disaster, a death in the family, or even a mass killing like the Oklahoma City bombing. It was startling how often the phrase recurred in LexisNexis after 1990 in that narrow set of contexts, and the usage was the gateway to today’s fixed phrase. In those early instances, the phrase could take the definite article, the indefinite article, or a possessive pronoun. You have to keep an eye on the article; now “the” is a set part of the phrase, but that wasn’t always so. (As lovely Liz from Queens observed, the ascendancy of the definite article was influenced by expressions like “sixty is the new forty” or “gray is the new black.”) 9/11 gave the phrase a boost; it hadn’t achieved cliché status yet, but it was well and truly out there. By 2005, the phrase sounded comfortable in many contexts — oil prices, baseball, web design — and the backdrop of tragedy no longer was required.

Every nuance in the history of the phrase sketched above hews to one basic idea: the new normal is always the result of an irrevocable change or dislocation. When you can’t go back, you have to find, or create, an everyday framework that allows you to function and move ahead. That was true, in a less than dramatic way, about the statistical usage, and certainly true of the post-traumatic therapese use that grew up in the 1990’s. It’s the same story when you use it to talk about climate change. There’s an unfortunate corollary to that underlying principle: since change is usually for the worse, the “new normal” is usually harder, uglier, or less pleasant than the old. The new normal is a new low.

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