two minutes for fracking

Best not to tergiversate when you're in so close

Into the new year strays some unfinished business from the old. First up: hockey’s word of the year for 2011. The dictionaries were busy with this last month, out in the wider world, in case you missed it. In the U.K., lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary mulled over the possibilities — lexical items was the term they employed, since phrases were in there with individual words — including bunga bunga, Arab Spring, fracking, facepalm, and phone hacking, before settling on … squeezed middle. If the phrase doesn’t resonate maybe the definition will: it was British Opposition Leader Ed Miliband’s term for those in society seen to be bearing the brunt of government tax burdens without really having the means to relieve them.

In North America, Dictionary.com looked at occupy (as in Wall Street), jobs (when are they coming back?), and zugzwang (a chess term, pronounced tsook-tsvhang, wherein a player’s only moves involve losing pieces or worsening his overall position). In the end, editors decided on tergiversate (ter-JIV-er-sate), which means to change repeatedly one’s attitude or opinions with respect to a cause; equivocate. Said Dictionary.com’s Head of Content, Jay Schwartz, in The Huffington Post, “We think that it’s immensely rewarding to find existing words that capture a precise experience, and this year, tumult has been the norm rather than the exception. There are contested public spaces around the world, where people are demonstrating in one direction or another. … This word encompasses an sense of flip flopping but it also implies a number of other complicating forces. Unlike flip flop, tergiversate suggests a lack of intentionality. It’s a change in state more out of necessity, as new events happen at great speed, whether in the economy, politics or attitudes.”

Over at Merriam-Webster.com, they went with the word that logged the most searches and look-ups over the course of the year. Ambivalence was in the running, as were didactic and socialism, but the winner was (practically enough) pragmatic. Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski described it as “an admirable quality that people value in themselves and wish for in others, especially in their leaders and their policies.”

“It’s a word that resonates with society as a whole; something people want to understand fully.”

Pragmatic isn’t really a hockey world, it just doesn’t apply, but some of those others might be worth drafting in. Fracking, for instance, which is what you do when you blast water at  high pressure into subterranean rocks to extract oil or gas. Could it not also be a minor penalty that Boston’s Brad Marchand might take against the Vancouver Canucks? Bunga bunga sounds like a tangle in front of the net after the whistle’s gone — what they used to call a donnybrook. Facepalm is defined as a gesture in which the palm of the hand is brought to the face as an expression of dismay or embarrassment, but I’m almost certain it’s what Alexandre Burrows does to Marchand when he gets out of the penalty box. And doesn’t zugzwang describe the way the Toronto Maple Leafs played for most of the 1970s and ’80s?

Hockey could use some new words, no doubt. Estimates vary on just how many active words there are in the English language these days, but if you toss in scientific words it’s somewhere in the neighbourhood of a million. That’s not bad. The Russians have something like 800,000, while French is only supposed to have somewhere around 225,000. In The Bible, apparently, there are fewer than 20,000 different words, which isn’t as many as Pushkin in his collected works (21,197) or Shakespeare, who comes in at 24,000, an impressive 1,700 of which he coined for himself.

All of which leaves hockey looking like it doesn’t have much to say at all. Can 12,000 words and phrases really be enough? That’s the number, at least, we were given on the cover of The Complete Hockey Dictionary, which Andrew Podnieks edited in 2007, and since it’s Complete I don’t know why we’d doubt it. Probably the lexicon has grown in five years — so maybe we’re at twelve-five or so now? There are those within the sport who say that hockey needs a bigger vocabulary, for too long has it got by generalities and tired old phrasings when it comes to putting the game into words. If they’ve been matched anywhere in the militancy of their calls to action, it would have to be either in the silence of those who are fine with the status quo or by the indifference of those who say that the two previous factions pretty cancel each other out.

Looking back, quickly: hockey’s Word of the Year for 2009 was, obviously, pansification (PAN-zee-fi-KAY-shuhn), Mike Milbury’s word on Hockey Night in Canada for what would happen to hockey if fighting were to be banned.

2010 is a little more challenging. In the end I think we’ll have to go with the interjection Iggy!!! (I!-gg-eeee!!!), a word of destiny if ever there was one. It’s what Sidney Crosby yelled at (who else?) Jarome Iginla at 12.22 of overtime on the last day of February of the year. Not only did it lead to the goal that won the gold medal for Canada at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, it also manages to sum up the urgency and exuberance of Canada’s win — though maybe not so much if you’re American-born, I guess.

Without it, who knows what would have happened to our national pride and honour? Michael Farber told the tale better than anyone in “Eight Seconds,” his account in the December 6, 2010, edition of Sports Illustrated:

Iginla has grown comfortable with his nickname
through his 13 years with the Flames. Iginla
hears ‘Iggy’ daily. Now he hears ‘IGGY!!!,’
ornamented with capital letters and exclamation
points. He is planning to spin out of the corner
and away from Suter, but the vehemence in Crosby’s
voice leads him to reconsider: Iginla certainly can
differentiate degrees of urgency, and Crosby’s yell is
imbued with an unmistakeable tone of, Get me the
puck right now! Iginla’s head is down. His eyes are
on the puck. But the scream that drifts above the
bedlam of 17,748 at Canada Hockey Place —
‘IGGY!!!’ is clearly audible on the replay —
demands he shift to a Plan B.

Which he does, flipping the puck to Crosby, who zips it through Ryan Miller into the American net and, with the nation that’s watching, jumps in his joy.

2011 got its defining moment on the first day of the year when Crosby dropped to the ice in the outdoor Winter Classic after a hit from Washington centre Dave Steckel that he never saw coming. We all know the rest of the story and how little hockey Crosby played last year while he rested his head. Maybe Crosby’s concussion ought to be the year’s lead phrase, given how many of number 87’s symptoms — confusion, fear, lack of focus, uncertainty for the future — have afflicted the sport as whole in the months of his absence. Or maybe just concussion on its own might be a better choice, just in the interest of keeping it general. Head hits? Head trauma? Those were pretty big hockey phrases, too, in 2011. Going the other way, there’s always the kind of concussion Crosby has, vestibular — of, relating to, or affecting the perception of body position and movement — a word hockey learned in September when his doctors talked in public about his particular troubles.

Whichever word or phrase you pick for 2011 — and I confess, so grim is the outlook, I’m kind of losing my stomach for it — it’s not going to pretty.

Yaroslavl was a word some of us may have known before, though in the terrible sense it took on in September when that northwestern Russian city’s hockey team died in a plane crash.

And of course, Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak became all too readily familiar as hockey words as the year went on, each one with own painful and poignant associations. Of them all, Boogaard is the one that seems to linger, haunting the game and how it conducts itself even now, fully eight months after than man himself died. That’s thanks in large part due a devastating series of articles that John Branch published in The New York Times in December. No-one with a stake in the game or a love for it, whether players, fans, owners, or executives, should be allowed to see another puck until they’re read Branch’s “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer.” At the very least we’ll all be caught up on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as C.T.E., another fearful lexical item that forced its way into hockey’s dictionary last year in a way that the sport isn’t going to be able to go on ignoring for much longer.