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!