October 31, 2006

Merely great, not unconscious

Linda Seebach reports what may be a new usage in the bad=good genre. This is from the Powerline blog ("The St. Louis Cardinals -- A Closer Look", 10/28/2006):

At the end of May, [St. Louis] had the best record in the National League. Pujols was unconscious; his numbers projected to 80 homers and 220 RBIs. He severely strained a muscle in his ribcage at the beginning of June and went on the DL. When he came back, he was merely great, not unconscious.

I've never seen this before -- if it's familiar to you, let me know.

It may be one of those sporadic, spontaneous value-inversions, like the use of "wicked retarded" that came up in an earlier LL post:

Last night the roomies and I went to Katie's for a potluck so good the food was wicked retarded. It was creepy how well everything went together everyone made dishes with fall veggies

[Update -- Jamie Dreier explains:

It's fairly common in sports talk. It's close to or synonymous with "playing over one's head". The idea is that your instincts take over, you aren't consciously controlling your movements.

My sense is that it's used more about basketball players than other athletes. Here's an example:

Not only were the Cavs a step slow, but the Pistons were playing unconscious basketball.

And from some "notes on teaching shooting to others":

You may have heard a player being referred to as "unconscious" while hitting shot after shot in a game. Great shooting has to be done from developed habits that don’t require mental preparation during the act. The game moves too fast. Habits formed for this level of use must be ingrained. This takes time, feedback, and success. A one-on-one situation allows the player to get a reaction from the teacher every time a shot is attempted. This is the fastest way to get results.

I've heard this kind of thing in basketball contexts. But from the Powerline example, it seems that the meaning has been generalized from "playing with instinctive skill" to "playing uncannily well", or something like that.

And Leigh Hunt adds:

I've seen and heard this before. I also found a relevant hit searching for "sports 'played unconsciously'".

The usage seems to reflect the contemporary sporting belief that athletes perform best in "the zone," which is supposed to be, as best I can make out, a mental state in which high-level thought yields to a kind of effortless intuition. That is, it's quite unlike "wicked retarded" in that the meaning of the negative-sounding word hasn't changed all that much--it's more that bad really is good in the given context.

Yes, I agree that this is not a bad=good example after all -- it's a different sort of semantic shift.

And not a recent one, either -- Roger "Unconscious" Shuy takes it back to neolithic times

It's not exactly clear to me what you (and Linda) find odd here. I don't take the meaning of "unconscious" as bad, since high school I've heard this to mean something really good in certain contexts, especially sports. In one school basketball game back then, for some reason every shot I took went in the basket. The coach called me "unconscious Roger" and told me to keep on doing whatever it was I was doing. He meant that I was "in a zone," using today's language for the same or similar things (unfortunately I never managed to be unconsciously good again). To be unconscious seems to mean that you can do everything right without thinking about it. Pujols is a great hitter who, at the beginning of the year, was even better, unconscious that is. Even when merely good, he's great. So I took this contrast about Pujols to be between greater (unconsciously so) and great (less so).

But then Ben Zimmer comes back with this:

I think there might actually be a family resemblance between the sports usage of "unconscious" and your "wicked retarded" example. They could be thought of as members of a larger category of approbative terms having to do with the loss of rational faculties. One could trace this category back to the "hot" jazz era of the '20s-'30s -- think of "mad" or "(stone) crazy" as terms of approbation. The lineage continued through to the hiphop era of the '80s and onwards, which has given us "ill", "sick", "stupid", "retarded", etc. In musical contexts, such terms often relate to an ethos of improvisation, as found in both hot jazz and hiphop freestyling: true creativity can only be achieved by letting go of cautious, studied technique. "Unconsciousness" in basketball or other sports would seem to mirror this abandonment of calculated effort.


[ And Darryl writes in with evidence to support Ben:

A possible source for wicked retarded might be related to the partying. In that context "retarded" has a meaning derived from its original meaning: "get retarded" means to dance in an uncontrolled though not swift manner, perhaps remeniscent of a seizure, hence "retarded". It's easy to see how that could be extended to mean that a party was wild ("it was retarded"), then from that it's easy to get "awesome" from it as well.

Black Eyed Peas, "Let's Get Retarded"

We got five minutes for us to disconnect from all
intellect and like the ripple effect
Bout' to lose her inhibition. Follow your intuition.
Free your inner-soul and break away from tradition.
Lose control, of body and soul.
Don't move too fast people, just take it slow.
Lose control, of body and soul.
Don't move too fast people, just take it slow.
Lose your mind this is the time,
Y'all test this drill, Just and bang your spine.
(Just) Bob your head like epilepsy,
up inside your club or in your Bentley.

In the same song there's a number of references to not being consciously dancing or being in complete control of your movements, very similar to the use of "unconscious" in sports. BEP makes further analogy, using stupid ("stoopid"), cukoo, and ignorant ("ig'nant"), as well as the unrelated "hectic", to mean the same thing.

Also worth noting is that for a while now hip hop artists, BEP included, as well as Busta Rhymes, have used "break your neck" to mean bobbing your head while dancing, or perhaps dancing in general.


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 31, 2006 06:57 AM