The Emics and Etics of the Sporting World

142004194470138886_zzjkurbS_fI have a regular Sunday Morning Routine.  I get up at pretty much the same time as usual but, instead of checking my watch every few minutes to see if I am still on schedule, a leisurely breakfast is followed by an hour or so of fiction reading (normally banned in the morning or I would never get anything else done) and then a walk in a local park.  This park, as well as being filled at the moment with snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils, has the added attraction of possessing an excellent tearoom.  So, half way through my walk I stop off for a pot of tea and another illicit morning read.  At the moment my reading material is the Nick Hornby collections of essays that I posted about last week and which I am enjoying so much that I am limiting myself to just one essay a week in the hope that he will continue to produce them and that, given my backlog, I will never quite manage to catch up.

Thus, two Sunday morning curled up over my pot of tea and a free biscuit to read the essay for October 2003.  In the course of this piece Hornby, writing about Zoë Heller’s novel Notes on a Scandal, comments that he was:

moving along nicely until a character starts talking about football. He tells a teaching colleague that he’s been to see Arsenal, and that “Arsenal won Liverpool 3-0.” …[I]f I were forced to declare one area of expertise, it would be what people say to each other after football matches. It’s not much, I know, but it’s mine. And I am positive that no one has ever said “Arsenal won Liverpool 3-0” in the entire history of either Arsenal Football Club or the English language.

And, of course, he’s absolutely correct.  Arsenal might have beaten or walloped or even done for Liverpool 3-0, but they most certainly never won them by that, or any other, score.  (Here I should declare a prejudice.  I did my Ph.D. in Liverpool and am an ardent supporter.  I would object to the statement that Arsenal won Liverpool 3-0 on sporting grounds as well as linguistic ones, but that is a story for another day.)  Clearly, what has happened here is that Ms Heller’s linguistic faux pas has come about because she has assumed that she has done sufficient research to lay claim to an emic understanding of the game of football when in fact she is still woefully etic.

I have come across this before.  The concept of emic v etic is one that is of central importance to the field of linguistic studies in which I completed the aforementioned Ph.D.  Put very simply an emic account comes from a person within the relevant culture, whereas an etic account comes from an outsider.  Officially the position is that an etic account attempts to be culturally neutral; in practice what that usually means is that the outsider makes a fool of themselves.  Here is the perfect example.

An American acquaintance of mine, on first being taken to see a game of cricket, tried to interpret it in the light of what he knew about the nearest equivalent he could think of – baseball.  This would have led to confusion even if he had been watching the rather more closely associated rounders, and by the time the day was over (but not the match, which was scheduled to continue for another four days – a source of even more bewilderment) he was completely flummoxed.  My friend does not like being flummoxed.  He went away and did his research.  When we next met to go to a game he proudly informed me that he no longer had an etic understanding, he had studied the game, he was an insider and had an insider’s emic appreciation.  Thus, for example, he now knew that the player who threw the ball was not called the pitcher but the bowler.  And I was the one left flummoxed, in this case as to whether or not I should disabuse him of his continuing lack of emic status.

Now this is the perfect example because unless, like me, you were brought up with a cricket bat firmly thrust into your hand from the moment you could hold anything at all, you probably don’t understand where my friend had gone wrong.  Surely bowler is the appropriate term?  Indeed it is. The problem is once again with the verb.  A bowler does not throw the ball, he bowls it.  And this is not just a pedantic, linguistic quibble.  In cricketing terms, if a bowler throws the ball he delivers it with an arm bent at an angle that is deemed illegal and if he continues to do this he will not be allowed to bowl any longer.  In fact, should he persist in delivering the ball in this manner he will be told to change his action or be banned from the sport altogether.  You definitely do not want to tell a bowler that he throws the ball.  If you hadn’t picked this up that is because you too have an etic understanding of this noble game.

Given my example, it might look as if this is another instance of two nations divided by a common language but as many a true born English man or woman will tell you, that isn’t the case.  There are a lot of my compatriots who are completely perplexed by the game of cricket, just as a great many technical things completely perplex me.  Start talking to me about bits and bites and I will admit to being as etic as you like.

We are all emic and etic in a vast range of subjects but I suspect that the niceties of the sports field is one of the areas in which those divisions are most keenly felt and where the scorn of the emic is most acutely aroused by the ignorance of the etic.  Sport excites deep-rooted emotions and it becomes almost impossible to imagine that the beauty and complexity of the game that we love and know intimately isn’t appreciated by the entire world.  One false step by the uninitiated and their status as pretentious outsider masquerading as a member of the inner elite is mocked unmercifully.  What Ms Heller should have done is avoid the subject altogether.  Better to admit your total ignorance from the outset than have your counterfeit emic credentials cruelly exposed.


18 thoughts on “The Emics and Etics of the Sporting World

  1. Thanks for the explanations about the difference between emics and etics. I have a friend who is emic when it comes to golf, and I’m hoping that this summer he will take my etic self to the course (the links, the green, whatever it’s supposed to be called) and show me the basic ropes. Of course, I will never be truly emic because I don’t have that ambition, but I want to enter more fully into his world and see just a glimpse of what he sees, so it’s a case of etic spying on emic!

    1. I’m almost totally ethic where golf is concerned with the exception of knowing that a links is next to the sea. I have this information from my father who was brought up on the coast and as a boy used to sneak onto the links, snaffle the golf balls as they landed and then sell them back to the frustrated golfers!!!!

  2. I think that this trap can be hard to avoid even without a writer pretending to have an insider knowledge of something. And the reader can be at fault to. I remember being completely thrown out of Half-Blood Blues when the word “flat” was used on one of the first pages to refer to an apartment in Baltimore. I was convinced this was a mistake the editor should have caught. But a librarian friend did some research and found the two words were used more or less interchangeably in the region until mid-century. Now, it still may have been a word that slipped through the cracks, or it may have been a deliberate usage. Either way, it rang false to me as someone attune to differences in American and British (or in this case Canadian I believe) English.

    Note: As a fan of the France ’98 team, I feel I must support Arsenal in the above matter.

    1. I had a very similar experience, Sly Wit, with the verb to canalise, meaning to turn a natural stream into something more artificial for picturesque purposes. The first time I came across it I was convinced this was a made up word, but in fact it was very common in the period when landscaping first came into fashion.

      On the subject of Liverpool and Arsenal maybe we should ask them to stage a play
      off to settle the matter:)

  3. Just fascinating, Alex! I’m now sitting here trying to rate myself on emic v etic. Cricket is at the top of the etic list, but golf isn’t far behind.

    1. I have an Eric smattering of most UK based sports thanks to my father, Lisa, who brought me up with a cricket bat in one hand and a racing form book in the other. Transport be across the Atlantic, however and I will immediately become the most Eric sports person on the planet!

  4. I’m so glad to have words for it now! It reminds me of reading French novels which happened to have a sentence or two of English thrust into them. The things I was supposed to swallow as idiomatic English! I guess this is also one of the prime reasons why writing about what you know is very good advice.

    1. Yes, that’s a good analogy, Litlove. I haven’t read the Heller, but I suspect what happened there was that the remark about football was very much peripheral and therefore not something she thought needed research, but you would have thought an editor would have picked it up.

      1. Is that a structure you would use otherwise in the UK? Because you would never say X won Y here in the US. At least about any sport or game I can think of.

        1. I can’t think of any occasion where it would be acceptable, Sly Wit, although I’m open to correction. The verb ‘to win’ would normally be followed by a noun indicating the award that was achieved rather than one that made reference to the other competitors. It is an ‘error’ that you sometimes hear children make when they are still learning to distinguish what can fit into that particular syntagmeme but I would expect them to have self-corrected that by five or six at the latest.

  5. First, I love the sound of your Sunday mornings. Second, so glad you are still enjoying Hornby’s book essays. They are delightful little snacks. Third, poor Zoe. She should have checked with someone who liked football to make sure here terms were right. Fourth, I enjoyed your discussion of emic and etic. I have never heard those terms before. I feel so much smarter now 🙂

  6. I’ve never come across the terms emic and etic before, so I’m glad I’ve read your post.

    I suppose that one of the challenges of being a writer is to seem to be emic, even if you’re not. I read Heller’s book and didn’t notice this slip-up, yet when Hornby pointed it out I was appalled. I liked your comparison to a bowler ‘throwing’ the ball rather than bowling too. My husband’s love of sport has clearly had more effect on me than I realised.

    I’m looking forward to reading Iain Banks’ latest novel Stonemouth. He writes about youth culture and I’m keen to see if he can still pull it off. (Although it must be said I’m doubtful of my own emic status on this one. I shall have to ask my daughter).

    1. Yes, I’m fairly certain I would be as etic as they come where youth culture is concerned. It was bad enough when I was still teaching and lecturing, these days I wouldn’t stand a hope!

  7. What an absolutely fascinating post! I had never come across emics and etics before, at least, not as separate words ho ho.

    Can’t help feeling that Zoe H was let down by her British editor if he/she failed to spot that one.

    1. My thought precisely, Helen. I don’t know if its a sign that I am getting older but I do think editors are increasingly failing to do as good a job as they should these days.

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