Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A pocketful of seeds

     Well, Northwestern's basketball team is in the NCAA championships for the first time in its 78-year history, leading to an interesting question.
    Do they stand a chance?
    "No," said a Wildcat sophomore of my acquaintance, showing that school spirit is hereditary, "they're just not that good."
    Though that was not the interesting question I have in mind. That's coming up.
    "Even if they win Thursday," he continued, "they go against the No. 1 seed, Gonzaga."
   Which leads to a more interesting question. What's Gonzaga? I had never heard of it in my life. It sounded like a type of cheese.
    Gonzaga University founded in 1887, a Jesuit school in Spokane Washington. Proof that: a) you can have a really good basketball team, the best in fact, and be obscure. and b) sports is good publicity, since, assuming I am not the only one who hadn't heard of the school, people are sure hearing of it now.
    But even that isn't the really interesting question, at least to me. Here it comes. 
    "How did 'seed' get to be a term for ranking in sports?" I wondered. Seeding is when, in a championship, the best teams or players are paired against the worst, early on, so that the top contenders don't knock each other out early in the tournament. 
     The boy had no idea regarding its etymology. I guessed it might be a corruption of "seat." 
     Back at the office, the mothership Oxford English Dictionary offered a full page plus of definitions. The word itself is a thousand years old, the first meaning given over to varieties of grain, bran and plants. The second definition seemed promising."The germ or latent beginning of some growth or development." That might fit with participants in a championship ranking. Then on to lobster roe and bubbles in glassmaking. 
      On a hunch, I turned to the Oxford Supplement. Latecomers that didn't quite work their way into the main show. To cease flowering, small crystals in liquid ... bingo! "Sport, esp. Lawn Tennis. [f. sense *II of the vb]. One of a number of seeded players in a tournament." 
    The first usage is from 1933, from The Aldin Book of Outdoor Games. "'But why put my beloved lawners last?' wails the Thibetan 'seed.'"
    The quote marks show it's a novel usage, at the time.
    The reference to a verbal form sent me back to the main dictionary to scour closer, in case I overlooked something in all those seeds. Yes, the II usage of the verb. "To stock with inhabitants" and a 1627 reference, garbled with age, "Here bigines at noe pe ledepe toper world to sede."
    Hmmm, that's not very satisfying. I looked online. Zip, except for this NPR segment from yesterday that said, in essence, "it's from tennis." Nice digging guys! 
     H.L. Mencken's three-volume The American Language had nothing except "seed" as a charming dialect past tense of "see." Fun, but not exactly on point. 
    Then I turned to Wentworth and Flexner's  Dictionary of American Slang, which did offer this definition of seed: "A young man with little ability or promise of future success."
   Ooo, tempting. A slow pitch, right down that pipe, to mix my sports metaphors. No! I'm not going to say it. We do not traffic in the obvious. But a good point to end. Go Cats!


  1. Oh Neil,Neil,Neil. Onky a man whose love of etymology trumps any interest is sports ( which is why I am a huge fan of yours) would assume this is the first most had heard of Gonzaga which according to Wikipedia " became a household name " more than a decade and a half ago 'with their "Cinderella" run in the NCAA tournament in 1999, which saw Gonzaga make it to the "Elite Eight." Gonzaga built on that success, and now has one of the country's best regarded basketball programs. Since that historic run, Gonzaga has experienced notable success in the West Coast Conference as well as in the NCAA tournament, in which they have played in 16 consecutive years."

    I loathe sports but even I had heard of Gonzaga.

    1. Indeed. Gonzaga is an example of how success in sports can feed (seed?) future success. This is especially true in basketball, where adding only a couple of top-notch players can make a huge difference.

  2. David Foster Wallace described seeding in tennis in his essay "String Theory." He didn't tackle the etymology, though.

  3. From Wikipedia:

    A seed is a competitor or team in a sport or other tournament who is given a preliminary ranking for the purposes of the draw. Players/teams are "planted" into the bracket in a manner that is typically intended so that the best do not meet until later in the competition. The term was first used in tennis,[1] and is based on the idea of laying out a tournament ladder by arranging slips of paper with the names of players on them the way seeds or seedlings are arranged in a garden: smaller plants up front, larger ones behind.

    Now I get it.

    My daughter was one of the many disappointed fans at the '95 Rose Bowl. Even though she now lives in the State of Washington, I'm sure she'll be rooting for Northwestern, dim though their hopes may be.


  4. The first time I heard the word "Gonzaga" was about 25 years ago, spoken by a woman whose daughter I used to babysit. She had studied there and said it was a wonderful experience. The name always conjured up "Godzilla" in my mind. But the school's name, particularly their basketball program, has grown from obscurity to one of national prestige, under their excellent coach Mark Few.

    When NU was allotted the #8 seed in the NCAA tourney I had mixed feelings, since the winner of the first game, between the 8 and 9 seeds, has to play the #1 seed in their regional. Which is, alas, the mighty Gonzaga Bulldogs.

    SandyK .

  5. Bing Crosby attended Gonzaga for three years after attending Gonzaga High. The library there has his papers and memorabilia.


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