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Words, Dec. 2

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Block that lateral:

A TV announcer said the other day that the word lateral no longer appears in the football rulebook. What used to be called a lateral is now referred to as a "backward pass," he said. Disturbing news. The lateral was a part of gridiron tilts as far back as I can remember. What's next? Elimination of the flying wedge?

Speaking of gridiron, Nathania Sawyer says she's working on a project related to the old Farkleberry Follies, and "I'm trying to figure out when/how political satire, sketch-based shows became known as gridiron shows." The question is surprisingly difficult.

Learning how a football field came to be called a gridiron is easy. The original gridiron was "a utensil consisting of parallel metal bars on which to broil meat or other food." Somebody looking down on a football field from the stands thought the yard-line stripes made the field resemble a gridiron. The usage appeared in print no later than 1897, according to "Listening to America."

But the use of gridiron to refer to "political satire, sketch-based shows" is not so easily explained. Though it's been around for awhile, this use isn't acknowledged by some dictionaries. My guess is somebody reasoned that the people who were mocked in these shows were "feeling the heat," figuratively — that is, being broiled. Similar programs, involving several speakers humorously deriding an honoree/butt, are called roasts.

On the other hand, one definition of gridiron is "a structure above the stage of a theater, from which hung scenery and the like are manipulated." But why would that sense be applied to political satire shows more than any other kind of show?


Richard Portis, M.D., responds to our discussion of bites and cuts Nov. 18. He agrees that the wound left by a pit bull wouldn't normally be called a cut, but he says that doctors wouldn't call it a bite, either, because a bite implies only a puncture, whereas pit bulls bite and then rip the flesh from the victim. A physician would probably call such a wound a laceration, Portis says.

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