A Tale Told by an Idiot

Writers love words, particularly their own. They love the look of them, the sound of them and if possible, the smell of them. Occasionally, these scribblers borrow from colleagues and predecessors phrases so common now in public discourse their origins are as mysterious as the source of the Nile.

We often use sports terms to illustrate what would otherwise be a dull recitation of our routine lives. “That’s strike three,” can explain why Trump fired a cabinet member or your teen lost his car keys for a month.

Many phrases come from the golden era of sports journalism when giants like Ring Lardner, Red Smith and Grantland Rice roamed the press box delivering colorful, insightful prose to the nation’s sports pages.

The 1920 census had much to do with the rise of sports journalism. That was the moment when more Americans lived in cities than on the farm. As anyone who has thrown a hay bale on the back of a trailer knows, living on a farm does not afford much in the way of play time. Once Americans gathered in cities, they suddenly had leisure time, disposable income and you could sell them a newspaper.

“Four blisters in one hand and a fifth in my partner’s” was Lardner’s title for a magazine article on a golf match. If Lardner’s name does not “Ring” a bell with you, it might help to know that Ernest Hemmingway borrowed his name as a non-de plume in high school. Fitzgerald was also a big fan, although he regretted Lardner’s interest in baseball.

“You had swell control in New York,” Lardner wrote. “You was hittin’ their bats right in the middle.”

Lardner also contributed, “He looked at me as if I were a side dish he hadn’t ordered.”

Red Smith coined several phrases:

“Ninety feet between bases is perhaps as close as man has ever come to perfection.”


“Writing is easy. All you have to do is sit down at the typewriter, cut open a vein, and bleed.”

Perhaps the most remembered phrase from Grantland Rice is, “When One Great Scorer comes to write against your name, He marks, not that you won or lost, but how you played the game.”

“Granny” Rice, famous for the “four horsemen” lede to a Notre Dame football story, also spent much time covering golf.

“Like life, golf can be humbling. However, little good comes from brooding about mistakes we’ve made. The next shot, in golf or in life, is the big one.”

No sportswriter, although he pre-dates these scribes by about 300 years, has contributed more to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations than the writer from Avon whose account of the games on Bosworth Field is still considered a classic.

Here are a few from the pen of Shakespeare:

All that glitters is not gold. As good luck would have it. Bated breath. Bag and baggage. Bear a charmed life. Better foot before (“best foot forward”). The better part of valor is discretion. Neither a borrower nor a lender be. Break the ice. Dead as a doornail.

Perhaps we no longer have time to savor a nice turn of phrase. Our scan and click method of consuming information allows us little in the way of band width to consume good writing. Also, a phrase can move from clever to cliché in less than a generation.

A few of the fraternity still enjoy their words and the feel of poignant syllables on the tongue.  For those of you who have persevered to the bottom of this column, I leave you with a final Lardner quote.

“They gave each other a smile with a future in it.”





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