syntax of team nicknames

The name of an athletic team generally consists of two components. The first is usually either the name of an institution with which the team is associated or that of a political or geographic district in which the team resides; the second is usually a metaphorical characterization, often alluding to some cultural or environmental aspect of the first. For example, the New Orleans Saints is both a glorification of the team's members and an allusion to the city's musical tradition. Similarly, the name of the University of Florida Gators is presumably intended to attribute to its players the imposing qualities associated with the large reptiles indigenous to central Florida.

The second component may or may not be part of the official team name. Thus, New York Yankees, Inc. is a legal name, whereas the team known as the Atlanta Braves is properly the Atlanta National League Baseball Club, Inc.. As a matter of convenience, however, we shall consistently refer to this component as the team's "nickname". This article will address just a few sample topics in the rich study of sports team nicknames viewed from a usage perspective, with the intention of further development over time.

The importance of team nicknames may be affirmed by Johnny Unitas, whose longevity as a quarterback stands in sharp contrast with his short-lived career in television broadcasting. During his first (and last, if memory serves) broadcasting assignment, a thrilling overtime game in November 1974 between the Jets and the Giants, at the start of the deciding period, the camera cut to Unitas on the field. With an apparent case of opening-day jitters, the old Colt reported cryptically, "New York won the toss and elected to receive."

Occasionally, instead of a metaphorical reference, the nickname is based on a characteristic of the team uniform, e.g., the Boston Red Sox. In this particular case, since each player wears two "sox" and not one, the proper singular form is not a Red Sock, as is sometimes supposed, but rather a Red Sox. (This observation is supported by practice, as confirmed by an informal poll conducted in front of Fenway Park on the evening of a Red Sox home game.) The same reasoning, of course, yields a Chicago White Sox and, since the name is etymologically a curtailment of Red Stockings, a Cincinnati Reds (although the last is controversial).

A problem of the opposite sort, i.e., that of deriving the plural from the singular, is presented by the official name of the Toronto-based franchise of the National Hockey League, the Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey Club, the members of which are commonly identified as Maple Leafs. This practice apparently originated with the Maple Leaf Regiment of the Canadian army and is a consequence of strict adherence to the widely held principle (see, for example, the Chicago Manual of Style) that the plural of a proper name is formed by appending s. This convention does not, however, account for the decision in 1925 by the minor league baseball Danville Tobacconists to change their name to the Danville Leafs.

Singular team nicknames, such as the Stanford Cardinal, the Alabama Crimson Tide, and the Miami Heat, pose special problems. When used as a subject, should such a name agree syntactically or notionally with its verb? The advice offered by William Safire in his On Language column (July 13, 1997) is puzzling:

If the team name ends with s, use a plural verb: the bulls beat and are. If not, construe it as singular: the Jazz beats and is.
It seems safe to assume that the Red Sox beats is an unintended consequence of this directive. Regarding the Jazz, etc., I prefer the plural verb; general American usage leans in that direction as well but remains divided. The British, of course, would go so far as to insist on New Orleans win and Miami are.

A related matter is the choice of pronoun, and a question of particular concern to a fan of the Texas Longhorns is this: when Texas plays Stanford or Alabama, does the traditional battle cry "Hook 'em, 'Horns" properly become "Hook it, 'Horns"?

A common practice in the naming of a college women's team as an afterthought to a name that was originally intended for men is to insert the qualifier lady, as in Texas Lady Longhorns, Tennessee Lady Volunteers, etc. But when the name already has a feminine connotation, it would seem to make more sense to invert the tradition—thus, Houston Gentleman Cougars and Oregon State Gentleman Beavers.