May 11, 2005

Historically untracked

I think Lila Gleitman is right that "untracked" is an eggcorn for "on track" -- Arnold Zwicky has entered it as such in the eggcorn database. She is certainly also right that it's mainly a sports usage these days. Google News currently has 113 hits for {"get|got|getting|gets untracked"}, and every single one of them is in a sports story. Given how sports metaphors pervade language in other domains these days, this surprises me. I would have expected at least to see a couple of companies or government agencies getting untracked.

Lila's idea that the underlying metaphor is getting out of a rut makes sense. But something else is going on as well. The pattern of usage in sports stories makes it seem like a matter of warming up -- it's as if an individual or a team naturally starts out tracked (not that anyone ever says that), and then if things go right they can get untracked.

In any case, it seems that the history goes back further than Lila thought. The ProQuest Historical Newspapers Archive, which indexes the NYT back to 1857, finds an example of "got untracked" from 1927.

[August 5, 1927 (By John Drebinger): CLARK HALTS CARDS, ROBINS WINNING, 4-2] As might be expected, there had to be some peculiar baseball before the Flock family got itself untracked, and in the third it did the rather amazing thing of leading off with double and a single without scoring a run at all.

For some reason, the form "get untracked" doesn't occur until 1940. This one certainly seems to be a "get out of a rut" metaphor, describing problems running in mud:

[April 19, 1940: ROCHESTER VICTOR AT SYRACUSE, 6-1; Gornicki Restricts Chiefs to Four Hits in International League Inaugural Game ] The field was so heavy that several of the hits would have been easy outs if the fielders had been able to get untracked, and the deciding run, in the fourth inning, came as Crabtree tripled after Longacre fell trying to make the catch and Kurowski flied to right.

The earliest modern-style usage of the form "get untracked" in the NYT is from an AP wire story in 1946:

[September 14, 1946: DONS TRIP DODGERS, 20-14] The Los Angeles entry snapped into high for 14 points before the Dodgers could get untracked.

The earliest "get untracked" story by a Times sportswriter seems to be from 1947, describing a mile race:

[January 19, 1947; By Joseph M. Sheehan: MANHATTAN'S TEAM IS SURPRISE VICTOR IN A.A.U. TITLE MEET] Walsh, a step behind Hulse, was caught napping, and Quinn had seven yards on him before he could get untracked.

LexisNexis indexes the NYT only back to 1980, and finds several untracked usages from that year. There's one from an AP wire story in July:

[ July 6, 1980: SIMPSON WESTERN LEADER BY 5 (AP)] Bean, the 1978 Western champion, could not get untracked. He was in sand traps twice and the rough twice for a double bogey at No. 10. But he birdied the long 12th hole, and got another at No. 14 before falling back into trouble.

And again by an NYT reporter in September:

[September 22, 1980 -- By ED CORRIGAN, Special to the New York Times: Rutgers Overcomes Cincinnati by 24-7]

Rutgers sputtered through an uncomfortable first half today against the University of Cincinnati, a team that was supposed to offer only token resistance,
The Scarlet Knights, however, got untracked in the second half with Al Ray rushing for 114 yards and went on to defeat the Bearcats, 24-7, before a crowd of 17,800 in 82-degree heat at Rutgers Stadium.

The earliest of the (much less frequent) non-sports uses that I've found so far was a 1978 quote from Chemical Week, but I'm sure there must be earlier examples. I just don't have the patience to wade through all the sports examples to find them.

[August 2, 1978: Pretreatment isn't a treat for industry] Pretreatment of wastes discharged from industrial plants to municipal sewers for treatment at public utilities have been a concern of the CPI since EPA published its first proposed standard in July 1973. That concern seemed to wane when EPA appeared to be unable to get untracked on policy. But the agency was finally pushed by legal action by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The consent decree in that case resulted in EPA focusing on the 65 chemicals cited in the suit.

In some nonsports stories , untracked means "falling apart" rather than "getting it together". However, these never seem to involve "getting untracked" but rather "becoming untracked" and the like:

[ June 13, 1980: $13.6 BILLION CITY BUDGET IS VOTED] Partly because of those uncertainties and the requirement that the State Legislature approve some of the city's taxes, the Council added three days to the Mayor's normal nine-day veto period in the event the plan becomes untracked.

By the way, the OED so far knows only the "not furnished with a track or path" and "not tracked or traced" senses of untracked; Merriam-Webster's 3rd Unabridged has essentially the same two senses; and the AHD doesn't have it at all. Encarta had nothing, and suggested helpfully (though bizarrely, in my opinion) that I might be interested in unfrocked. It's curious that such a common usage is lexicographically ignored -- I wonder if sports terms in general are similarly underdictionaried, and if so, why?

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 11, 2005 09:00 AM