The opposite of generification

Well, my Friday evening was rained out again, which gives me chance to catch up on some items I have been meaning to post on phonoloblog. Consider this one is an offering to the gods.

The rain has come two out of every three Fridays since the new year. Knowing this, I checked the forecast this past Monday, only to find the weather was blatantly messing with me:

Fridays are, weather permitting, time for me to venture out gingerly on rollerblades with a hockey stick in my hand and visions of hat tricks dancing in my head. The hockey gods have not been kind this year between the NHL lockout and the minimal TV coverage we would have got had the league not cancelled the season. Back in Arizona, the floor hockey league has been chopped from intramural sports. Now, the rainiest winter ever in California has added to the dearth of puckage. So to fill the gap, I thought I’d post a bit of hockey linguistics, as an offering to those same gods.

Now, when you think of champions, and Boston, lately you might think of the Patriots or the Red Sox. Long ago was a time when Bobby Orr roved for the Bruins. Orr was a dangerously offensive defenseman who presided over the franchise’s golden years. To this day, he remains the archetype of the goal-scoring defenseman – one whose exploits will never be equaled.

One of the most famous photographs in hockey history (if not of all sports) is a shot of Orr immediately after scoring the Stanley Cup winner in overtime in 1970. The famous photograph came in the fourth game of the Stanley Cup Final, capping a sweep over the St Louis Blues. It was Boston’s fourth title and first since 1941. Linguistically, and phonologically, the event is significant because it is often referred to as “The Goal”.

The photo is astonishing because it captures Orr airborne at waist-level, with his arms outstretched in celebration and his mouth agape with a mixture of shock and joy. He had just managed to release a shot as he swooped in on Blues goaltender Glenn Hall, and was tripped by the opposing defenseman as the puck went in. (In the picture, the puck has already bounced back out of the net). If you see the event on video it’s unremarkable: Orr charges the net, trips, and gets up with his arms in the air. Game over. The photo, from behind the glass near the net, is far more dramatic. I believe it is only because of the timing of the photograph that the goal is remembered as it is.

Here’s the semantic issue: the phrase “the goal” is pretty generic, even in the context of the game, where goal specifically means “the puck legally and entirely crosses the red line into the net”. Tens of thousands of goals have been scored in the NHL, many of them dramatic, many of them by Orr. But “The Goal” refers only to this one.

I’m calling this the Opposite of Generification – in generification, you take a proper noun phrase and apply it in more general circumstances. For example, doing a Bobby Orr thing, which refers generically to something associated with Orr: take the puck from behind your own net and skate end-to-end, finishing your own play by scoring. You don’t need to be Bobby Orr to do a Bobby Orr play (but, if you are, you’re more likely to score). In the Opposite of Generification, you take a generic phrase and assign it to a specific referent, so this particular event is labeled The Goal.

Obviously this will create confusion if the phrase becomes so restricted in its reference. As a means of distinguishing The Goal from any other goal, some contrast-enhancing prosodic devices seem to be at work. So here’s the phonology: when people talk about The Goal, they often insert a brief pause before the the. The pause is sometimes enhanced with a glottal closure that opens with the onset of voicing for the interdental fricative. Notably, the vowel in the remains an unstressed schwa, and primary phrasal stress goes on goal. So we have “The Goal” [ðəgól], not “The Goal” *[ðí.gol]. Metaphorically, this is like spoken capital letters.

This is somewhat testable too, just not with Google. The search term “the-goal” gets all kinds of varied hits, and you can’t use the quotation marks as search items. But go find a knowledgeable hockey fan and ask them the following question:

Who scored “The Goal”?

If you’re typing, use the quotation marks. If you’re speaking, use the prosodic devices I describe above: pause and glottal closure before the the. If you have trouble, imagine the same prosody as in a question like “Who wrote The Shining?”

Diehard fans of various generations and various teams might dispute the sole ownership Orr’s cup-winner has of the phrase, pointing perhaps to Henderson’s 1972 winner for Canada against the USSR, or Gretzky’s feed to Lemieux in the 1987 Canada Cup, or Lemieux’s feign against the U.S., in which he eschewed a perfect pass from Chris Pronger, letting it slide past his feet to Paul Kariya, whose ensuing goal initiated a Team Canada comeback over the U.S. for the elusive gold medal. For me, each of these goals has a different name: there’s Henderson’s Goal, Gretzky-to-Lemieux, and The Fake. These labels seem specific enough not to require the prosodic offset needed in The Goal. Curiously, Henderson’s Goal usually refers to Paul Henderson’s winner in Game 8 of the Summit Series, although he also scored the winners in Games 6 and 7. Regardless, for anyone who thinks of one of these (or any other specific event) as The Goal, the phonological claim remains similar.

I suspect the Opposite of Generification appears in other events and in other sports, but I’m not familiar enough with the lore to know for sure. I can imagine a famous football play coming to be known as The Pass, or The Flea-Flicker, or The Lateral, or The Stand. Okay, maybe The Flea-Flicker is a stretch, but Doug Flutie nearly owns The Hail Mary, and fans of the Oakland Raiders surely remember The Tuck Rule. To add to it, I saw Donavan McNabb make a tremendous pass 14 seconds after the snap and well out of the pocket last fall on Monday Night Football. I also saw Tom Brady and Bethel Johnson stick the knife into the Seattle Seahawks late in an early-season game by completing a near-impossible 48-yard pass deep in Seahawks territory. Although these were spectacular plays, it’s hard for them to attain legendary status, and hence a formal label like The Scramble or The Completion, since no title was at stake in these games. Nevertheless, if there are such events with formal names in football folklore, I’d be interested if any of them has the same prosodic marking typified by The Goal.