Wednesday, May 02, 2012

clutch ado about nothing

While trawling around the web looking for reactions to Levon Helm's death I came across a post on Jerry Coyne's excellent website Why Evolution Is True saying pretty much the usual stuff - i.e. The Band were great, he was great, shame he's dead, here's some clips - but also reproducing a section of the lengthy New York Times obituary I linked to. Here's the relevant bit:
In the Band, lead vocals changed from song to song and sometimes within songs, and harmonies were elaborately communal. But particularly when lyrics turned to myths and tall tales of the American South — like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Ophelia” and “Rag Mama Rag” — the lead went to Mr. Helm, with his Arkansas twang and a voice that could sound desperate, ornery and amused at the same time. 
The word "ornery" is a bit of a mystery to non-Americans, I think. Anyone who reads a lot will have seen it used and have a vague idea of what it means - awkward, intransigent, bad-tempered - but I suspect no-one outside of North America would ever use it in spoken or written English. It's probably possible to be more specific than that, in fact, as it seems to be to be a rural middle-America good-old-boy sort of word, i.e. not something you'd ever hear the east coast urban sophisticates using. I suspect most non-American English speakers who heard it used in conversation (particularly by someone with a strong American accent) would think that they'd just misheard the word "ordinary" and be slightly puzzled by the context. It turns out that you wouldn't be entirely wrong, as it happens, since "ornery" is a 19th-century contraction of "ordinary", although the meanings have diverged quite a bit since then.

Another strange thing that struck me while watching Sky Sports' PGA tour golf coverage, including of course the Masters, is the use of the word "clutch" to describe the holing of putts under pressure, as in these two articles describing recent tournament wins by Mark Wilson and Luke Donald. These two articles take the definition somewhat more loosely and use it to describe putts that are a) on the 18th green for tournament wins and b) fairly long. In my mind that's not what "clutch putt" really means - I see them as the sort of putts from 10-12 feet and in that you have to hole reliably on the back nine on Sundays to win golf tournaments, and that Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus used to knock in as regular as clockwork.

"Clutch" as an adjective is used (though less often) in sports other than golf, though, like "ornery", overwhelmingly by people in North America. Here's a few headlines relating to basketball, American football and motor racing. No-one seems to have much of an idea where the usage originates from.

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