Semantics and politics make a familiar pair. Every other day, it seems, something crops up in the mine-strewn worlds of domestic or international politics that makes us stop and think about the meaning of words. One day it’s a foreign president’s legalistic musings about the meaning of “is,” the next, a governor’s or prime minister’s verbal blunder or an international incident such as the one that kept Chinese and American diplomats busy recently sifting the nuances of the word “apology” in two languages. This week, however, semantics was exercising minds in an unusual setting: the world of sports. In a finish so dramatic and perfectly paced it seemed scripted, Tiger Woods won the 2001 Masters golf championship in Augusta, Georgia last Sunday, his fourth straight professional major, and immediately brought a simmering semantic debate to full boil.
How, the golf gurus asked, should Mr. Woods’ remarkable feat be classified? The problem centered on the meaning of the word “slam.” Everybody knows, or thinks they know, what this means: winning all of something. The phrase is better known, perhaps, as “grand slam,” which is doable in many fields, from card games, where it means taking all the tricks in one hand, to baseball, where it denotes a home run with bases loaded, to sports like golf or tennis, where it means . . .
Ah, but now we’re back where we started. Mostly, it is not a problem. A grand slam in tennis or golf means winning all the major or designated tournaments in a single year. A career slam means winning those tournaments over a lifetime, something Mr. Woods has already done at age 25. (Bridge also has the useful “little slam,” which means winning all the tricks in a hand but one). Tennis players pull off grand slams from time to time, but in golf the feat has only happened once, when Bobby Jones did it in 1930, which is why some people have been anxious to claim it for Mr. Woods, who has now won within a span of just 294 days the U.S. and British Opens, the PGA Championship and the Masters.
The hitch is that the string of wins covers two seasons, 2000 and 2001, which means that technically the purists are right: It’s a “Tiger slam” or a “round-the-corner sweep,” but if words are to have any meaning at all it’s not a grand slam. (Though Humpty Dumpty did point out long ago to Alice that words can be made to mean different things: “The question is which is to be master, that’s all.” After this week’s Masters, there’s no debate about mastery. Privately, Mr. Woods can call his feat anything he wants.)
In fact, he has rightly stayed out of the public squabble, merely noting that, however his winning run is described, he can still line the four major trophies up on his coffee table. Besides, given both his aspirations and his record-shattering achievements to date, it is only a matter of time before he can line them up in the right, grand-slam order: Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA. In this sense, the debate has been something of a tempest in a tin cup.
Yet in another sense, it has been appropriate, not least because it illuminates an important issue: the relationship between words and reality. The reason we get so hot under the collar about words — whether for an international apology or a sporting accolade — is because at some level we realize their power to create, rather than just reflect, perceptions. In the case of Mr. Woods, the sporting world recognizes that it may be witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon — the equivalent of the late Sir Donald Bradman in cricket, say, or Mr. Michael Jordan in basketball — which is why so many people are reaching for superlatives to match their sense of awe, words they consider fit tribute. Sustained transcendence in any field, but especially in athletics, has that effect, and it is understandable. But if the tributes outstrip the reality, they begin to distort it.
That is why limits and definitions are better observed than discarded. They keep the currency of accomplishment true. Some of Mr. Woods’ more excitable fans have suggested that defenders of the calendar-year definition of a grand slam (including Mr. Arnold Palmer and Mr. Jack Nicklaus) are motivated by sour grapes. This is ungenerous and also shortsighted, especially given Mr. Nicklaus’ unstinting praise for this week’s feat. We side with the language purists, if only because Mr. Woods still needs real goals to reach for — real for him anyway. If we call his amazing round-the-corner sweep a grand slam, what will we call it when and if he actually wins all four majors in a single season? Debasing language only leaches the gold from genuine achievements.
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