With today being Opening Day, my thoughts naturally turn to elegant variation. Hey, what can I say? I’m a word geek but at least I admit it. Anyway, the subject has been on my mind since a few days ago, when I read this Tweet by the journalist Bryan Curtis (@curtisbeast):
Love the political reporter tic where you must use a state’s nickname at least once per article. This week: The Badger State!
Then he followed up:
It’s like a bored sportswriter typing “stanza” instead of inning.
Bryan was, of course, talking about elegant variation. This sin (elegant is pejorative) against the language was named and concisely defined by H.F. Fowler in his 1908 volume, excuse me, book, The King’s English, as “substitutions of one word for another for the sake of variety.”
Fowler warmed to the theme in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1926. He kicked off his classic, nearly three-page entry this way:
It is the second-rate writers, those intent on expressing themselves prettily rather than on conveying their meaning clearly, & still more those whose notions of style are based on a few misleading rules of thumb, that are chiefly open to the allurement of elegant variation. … The real victims, first terrorized by a misunderstood taboo, next fascinated by a newly discovered ingenuity, & finally addicted to an incurable vice, are the minor novelists & the reporters. There are few literary faults so widely prevalent, & this book will not have been written in vain if the present article should heal any sufferer of his infirmity.
Fowler doesn’t single out sportswriters, but in my experience they are the most promiscuous elegant variers, forced as they are to perform infinite rehearsals of the same limited number of events and outcomes. For some reason, baseball writers are the worst of all. Think of all the different names for home run: homer (more of a nickname than true e.v.), round-tripper, four-bagger, circuit clout, dinger, (now moving to verb forms) took [the pitcher] deep, touched ‘em all, hit it out of the park, hit it out of the yard, went yard and, a terse favorite at ESPN, yard work!
Whenever I think about elegant variation, the same phrase comes to mind: the fleet-footed second sacker, that is, the fast-running second baseman. I always assumed that I made it up, in an opium dream or suchlike. But I just Googled the phrase and produced six hits, including this from an unnamed 1915 newspaper:
The Hustlers took an early lead, getting the first in the opening stanza [!!] when Agnew was hit. Connelly followed with a perfect sacrifice, the fleet-footed second sacker going to third on the play when Morris threw bum.
“Threw bum” is choice.
Two particular athletic elegant variations have always stuck in my memory. The first occurred in 2004, when I read a (London) Daily Telegraph football writer refer to Paul Scholes, a red-headed player who apparently suffers from a respiratory ailment, as “the ginger asthmatic.” I espied the second on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard some time in the 1980s. A future contest (sorry, I can’t help it) was referred to as an “arc fray”—fray being a synonym for fight and arc meaning that the game would be played under the arc lights. Hence, a night game.
I’ve always thought arc fray was invented by the scoreboard operator that day, and imagined him (or her) a hidden genius, well aware of baseball figuration, who was brilliantly taking elegant variation just past the point of absurdity, the pig Latin overtones being the coup de grace. I was wrong. Google, once again, directed me to the Schenectady Gazette of August 24, 1946, where I found: “The Bluejays outhit the Glovers 14-11 in the arc fray but the visitors connected for extra-base blows in the pinches that meant the difference.”
I believe I can stand shoulder to shoulder with Fowler against elegant variation, while at the same time regretting that national-pastime scribes just don’t author sentences like that anymore.