April 04, 2006

Cupcakin' it

Here's a little something for all the new readers sent our way from Baseball Prospectus. In the offseason, the New York Mets acquired All-Star closer Billy Wagner, and on Opening Day manager Willie Randolph wasted no time in bringing Wagner in for the ninth inning of a close game. After the Mets pulled off a 3-2 victory, the AP quoted Wagner as saying:

"Might as well get thrown right into the fire. No use cupcakin' it."

I had never come across this use of the verb cupcake before, but its meaning was immediately obvious from the context. Wagner meant there was no point in trying to breeze through his assignment or get by with little exertion. There's a long tradition of similar dessert-related metaphors in American slang: piece of cake, cakewalk, pudding (meaning 'something easy'), easy as pie, etc. A little searching on Usenet newsgroups and other forums for sports talk turned up various uses of the verb cupcake, very often in reference to a team building up a deceptively good win-loss record thanks to an easy competitive schedule:

nebr.sports.unl, Dec. 29, 1999
BYU, who cupcaked their way to a perfect season in '84, gets it in the karma shorts again by getting whipped by unbeaten Marshall, one year after losing their bowl to unbeaten Tulane.

Buffalo Runners Forum, June 18, 2002
I don't care if Dan Grande cupcakes his way to victory; I'm just wishing that he would throw it down against the big dogs once in a while.

rec.sport.basketball.college, Jan. 6, 2003
Look at SOS [strength of schedule] to see if the school is cupcaking.

KFFL Community, Jan. 13, 2005
Mediocre Indy, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh teams cupcaked their way into the playoffs, feasting on the Jaguars, Texans, and Bengals.

Sportsrant Community, Jan. 29, 2005
and how does a good defense give up what 56 points to KC? thats why Philly basically cupcaked it through the playoffs.

I posted my findings to the American Dialect Society mailing list, and in short order Grant Barrett had crafted an entry for cupcake in his online lexicon of weird and wonderful words, Double-Tongued Word Wrester. Searching on the hyphenated spelling, Grant found a much earlier citation in the newspaper databases, from 1991:

1991 Phil Jackman Baltimore Evening Sun (Md.) (July 24) "But I only used them two days" p. D2: In its last season before joining Big Ten hoops, Penn State is cup-caking it with UMBC, Morgan, Drexel, Miami (O), Buffalo, Lafayette, Cleveland State, Columbia, Toledo, etc. How would you like to be in charge of selling season tickets?

Grant also suggested another possible source for the term besides dessert-type "easy" metaphors: the noun cupcake can also mean 'a homosexual man; an effeminate or ineffectual man,' from an earlier term of affection for a girl or woman. Given all the macho posturing in American organized sports, I can see how this sense of cupcake could have informed the creation of a verb that implies a lack of manly exertion. In baseball alone, there is a great deal of what Jim Bouton in Ball Four called "homosexual kidding among players" — not to mention the type of gender play found in rookie hazing, where new players on a team are dressed in drag (see also Barry Bonds' recent impersonation of Paula Abdul). So it wouldn't be surprising if cupcake as a derogatory epithet for a less-than-manly man could be transferred to the verb form, with an assist from similar lexical items like cakewalk (which also has a verb sense meaning 'to breeze through an easy task').

I came across one outlier with a slightly different sense, in an article where Kansas University basketball player Keith Langford is talking reverentially about his mother:

Topeka Capital-Journal, Dec. 17, 2002
"She's always been my worst critic," Langford said. "She never cupcaked anything, always gave it to me straight."

Here the verb clearly means 'sugarcoat (something)' (i.e., 'make criticism more palatable'). I haven't found any other examples of this usage, so I'm guessing Langford was reaching for sugarcoat but came up with cupcake through a creative mixture of metonymy and metaphor.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at April 4, 2006 10:44 PM