Sunday, September 4, 2022

So now being the GOAT is all caps and a good thing...

     Summer's over?! And I never got the chance to lie under a cherry tree, a la Sydney J. Harris, and just muse. About the small mysteries of life. About writing and language. That's so unfair. 
     I blame the 24/7 news cycle. You just can't get in the proper musing fashion with your ex-president vigorously manifesting himself as a traitor, continually ramping up to tear the country apart violently to return himself to undeserved high office.     
     But you can try.
     I watched Serena Williams play in the U.S. Open — my wife is a tennis fan. And while it was thrilling and dramatic, one small aspects of her monumental success kept tripping me up. 
     Just look at it. 
     She's the goat. And not because Williams lost her bid for a 24th major title. Everyone was intensely gratified by how well she played, at 40, against opponents who sometimes weren't yet born when she began her professional career.
     No, Williams is the GOAT because that stands for "Greatest of All Time."
     You know that. I know that.
     And yet. It just doesn't feel right.
     To me. 
     Decades of habit cannot be abandoned in a moment. Up until fairly recently, a goat, in sports, was someone who failed in spectacular fashion. Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner was perhaps the archetypical goat for letting Mookie Wilson's grounder go between his legs in the sixth game of the World Series. Charlie Brown was a goat. 
     (Note that, in this strip, Charlie despairs at being "the goat," which strikes me as unusual, since the definite article seems more used in the greatest sense. Blow a play and you risk becoming a goat, part of a braying herd. Rise to the summit and you achieve the rare distinction of becoming the GOAT.)
     Yes, I'm always the one, when some other old coots complain about changes in the language, who points out that language is supposed to be plastic. That's something of an in-joke, as plastic today refers to the artificial substance, while previously it evoked the ability to be formed, taken from the Greek word plastikos, to mold or sculpt (hence "plastic surgery.")
     Goat as a metaphorical term, and not just a barnyard animal, is traced all the way back to 1530, when William Tyndale translated the Bible from Hebrew and offered up "And Aaron cast lottes outer the gootes; one lotte for the Lorde, and another or a scape-goote."
      Hence "scapegoat," or animal upon which the people of Israel's sins were imposed upon, came into the language. "Scape" was coined in the 1300s as a shortened term to describe the act of escaping. Thus a "scapegoat" is literally an escaped goat, as opposed to the one that gets its throat cut. 
Metropolitan Museum
     The new meaning, "Greatest Of All Time," starts with Muhammad Ali, who used the term to refer to himself. It was abbreviated by LL Cool J, who put out an album, "G.O.A.T.," in 2000.
     This was all sorted out a couple years back by Sports Illustrated and others. I'm late to the party, I know.
      I wonder. Will the Charlie Brown sense be effaced by the Serena sense? I could say I hope not, because the Bill Buckner goat is such a useful term. What would its replacement be? A ... what? Loser? Clod? Blunderer? Nothing comes close. While GOAT, as in Greatest Of All Time, still has a whiff of the barnyard. At least to me, though that has to be my age, since few seem hesitant. "The most fierce GOAT = Serena Williams," former presidential press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted this week. The language changes, and time reminds us of the fact. When the Hindenburg zeppelin blew up at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937, Herb Morrison, broadcasting its arrival on WLS, described the disaster as "terrific," meaning "full of terror." It isn't terrific anymore.


  1. GOAT started with Ali and then there was Michael Jordan and LeBron James. I still prefer "goat" as a synonym for "spectacular failure"...whatchoo gonna use instead? Doofus? Flop? Chump? There's really no good alternative.

    Serena turned pro at 14, in 1995, and won her first major title in 1999. Which means she's been around longer than some of the biggest names in professional sports...a quarter-century. But I've somehow managed to pay her no mind for all those years. I've never cared for tennis. Don't like all those grunts and groans. I didn't realize it I'd been ignoring her for that long. All that ignoring sure went by fast.

    1. The GOAT was actually coined for a New York City playground basketball player

  2. Herb Morrison totally lost it at the Hindenburg's crash. He called the worst thing that happened, even though just 37 died.

    1. It was the first air disaster ever filmed as it happened, and the hydrogen explosion was quite spectacular. Also, that was in 1937, when commercial aviation was still in its infancy.

      Although previous crashes of military airships in England, France, and the U.S. had resulted in more fatalities (73 died when the USS Akron crashed and sank in the Atlantic in 1933), the death toll from the Hindenburg disaster was not exceeded in a commercial aviation accident until just after WWII, when several domestic aviation disasters resulted in over 50 deaths in each of them. But those were not until 1947.

      So, yeah, the crash at Lakehurst was something of a BFD.

    2. Wasn’t he watching it happen when he said that? I doubt he knew the death count in the moment, and that must have been a tremendous shock to witness.

    3. As he looked on in horror, Morrison said: "It's a terrific (which then meant "causing terror, gruesome, horrendous") crash, ladies and gentlemen. It's smoke, and it's flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity, all the passengers screaming..."

      If you read or listen to the full transcript of the WLS broadcast, it's readily apparent that he's stunned, shocked, and dazed. But neither confused nor speechless. He eventually regained his composure, continued reporting on rescue efforts, and interviewed survivors of the disaster.

  3. There is a lot of discussion surrounding who is the GOAT Michael or lebron , nobody brings up Sheryl Swoopes.

    Serena may well be the greatest womans tennis player of all time. but when it comes to the GOAT . In tennis its Federer .
    Using the same word in the acronym form for the best as was used in
    the past for that days bum is whatever.

    Expanding the notion of a GOAT to a point of diluting its new meaning to the point HS. kids use it about one of their friends on the JV soccer team is pretty annoying

    Alis time as the GOAT may have passed. Jordans too. or will soon. as a sports term I can do without it. Too subjective.

    Then there's Hicham El Geurrouj . The undisputed GOAT

  4. This seems simple enough to me. Many words have multiple, occasionally disparate meanings. Such is now the case with goat. From the context and the capitalization, or lack thereof, it's easy enough to discern which is which. As an acclamation, GOAT is written with all capital letters, as a description of a failure, it's not.

    Charlie Brown would have been a lowercase goat, except that the strip was lettered in all capitals. And I think he feels like "the" goat, because in his limited experience, it's always him. There aren't multiple goats in the games, or at least he doesn't perceive that there are others. It's always him. He's "the" goat, not a goat among many.

  5. A goat such as one who may have been responsible for an untoward outcome is only the goat for that occurrence. A G.O.A.T. is a designation of lifetime achievement.
    Bill Buckner will always be remembered for that error, hiding the fact that he had an outstanding baseball career otherwise. It’s usually the most sensational that gets the attention.
    It’s too bad that people get stuck with being remembered for one small part of their life, overshadowing so much of the rest. Ask Howard Dean or Ned Beatty or Monica Lewinsky or Yoko Ono to name but a few.
    It works in reverse too. The despicable Urban Meyer gets credit for coaching championship teams when he was simply in the right place at the right time, inheriting great players.


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