Friday, August 15, 2008

Word Mavens

Some years ago, I appeared as part of a panel on the Walt Bodine radio show in Kansas City, Missouri. The concept for this particular show was an original idea from yours truly. For some time, I had been fascinated by the expressions and terms we use in everyday language, expressions that we instinctively know the meaning of -- but not necessarily the origin. Sayings such as, "Back to square one" and, "Chip off the old block." I contacted the producer of the show who thought it was a wonderful idea for a one time program. I appeared with two professors from the University of Missouri, and our first show aired in 1998. According to the producer "the lines lit up like the 4th of July" and there was so much interest in the topic, we were given a monthly slot, and were given the title of Word Mavens. The show required extensive research on my part (not wanting to be asked a question I couldn't answer on live radio!) and so I plan on using that research as posts over the next few weeks. I hope you will enjoy them. I will choose my own favorites, but also some that appear in common, everyday usage.

Note: The origin of the terms and expressions are often lost to obscurity, and many have multiple source origins.

Back to Square One

From the late 1920s into the late 1950s, the radio or the “wireless” as it was affectionately called in England became a very popular form of entertainment. The most popular shows were music, weekly lifestyle serials and sport. The sporting events such as rugby and football (soccer) were the most difficult for the sports commentators to describe in real-time to their listeners. So, the BBC came up with a concept that helped the audience visualize where a particular player was at the very moment the ball was played, in essence to “see” the game. The idea was simple and effective. They drew a diagram of a field and sectioned it into eight numbered squares -- plus one square (numbered "one") for each goalkeeper. This diagram was first published it the Radio Times (BBC’s weekly listing guide) in their January 1927 edition. Listeners could refer to the diagram while the game was in progress. The commentators were able to give the name of the player and which square he was in, then who received the ball and where he was on the pitch. The listeners, by looking at the diagram in the Radio Times, would know exactly where the player was on the field, and where he had passed the ball. The commentators use of this technique helped the listening audience follow the game in real-time. This origin is controversial because the available BBC recordings of early games do not include mention of the term "Back to Square One".