Friday, January 09, 2009

"Scrums" getting a bad rap

I love the English language, and not simply because it's the only one I can converse. I find it both remarkable and wonderful how the English language adapts, invents and evolves the way we speak and the words we employ.

Nevertheless, that doesn't prevent me - lifelong rugby fanatic - from getting annoyed whenever the language is bastardized and bowlderized.

A long-standing pet peeve of mine is the North American usage of the word "scrum."

I don't particularly mind when political reporters employ the word on Parliament Hill, referring to informal press scrambles in the parliamentary corridors with reporters and elected politicians, but it's tiresome hearing the usage being mis-applied by athletes and analysts in the sporting arena.

During last nights' fiery NHL game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, Sportsnet announcers Joe Bowen and Greg Millen repeatedly referred to testosterone-fuelled players shoving one another as "scrums." Both used the noun as a verb over a dozen times.

Over the past few years I have heard similar mis-use from former NFL players and current TV announcers Dan Dierdorf, Troy Aikman, Steve Tasker and Phil Simms, whenever a loose ball or "breakdown" occurs.

Since rugby union was a progenitor and advent to both ice hockey and American football, I'd like to call a time-out. I don't enjoy Quebecois-style language police, but as a Quixotian rugby fan it's time to apply a headlock and set the record straight.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a "scrum" is the name of the formation when rugby forwards "form a pack."

The entry for "scrum" in the Online Etymology Dictionary says:

Abbreviation of scrummage, a variant form of scrimmage (q.v.).

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary explains:
Main Entry: scrum
Pronunciation: \ˈskrəm\
Function: noun
Etymology: short for scrummage, alteration of scrimmage
Date: 1857
1 aor scrum·mage \ˈskrə-mij\ : a rugby play in which the forwards of each side come together in a tight formation and struggle to gain possession

wikipedia further clarifies:
A rugby union scrum consists of two team's eight forwards, with each team binding together in three rows.

The two forward packs form a scrum by approaching to within an arms length of each other. The referee gives the command crouch and the opposing front rows then crouch. Then the referee calls touch and props touch the opposites outside shoulder. The referee then issues the pause command to inspect the scrum, and lastly engage and the two front rows come together.

The American football snap and scrimmage (later adopted by Canadian football) were all derivatives of the early scrummage, and responsive in different ways to problems encountered in the way the rules regarding it were written and administered.

The word "scrummage" is a modification of "scrimmage" (the form of the word previously used in rugby and still used in American and Canadian football), which in turn derives from or is a cognate of "skirmish". The term was used in the laws of rugby union for a long time before being permanently contracted to just "scrum".

The keywords here are "formation," "binding" and "command."

Look at top at the Leafs vs. Canadiens photo again ... and ask yourself if anything remotely resembles a game re-start, or looks like a "line of scrimmage" with a "formation" of players "binding" according to the instructions of the referees' "command."

Sorry, you can't.

For rugby players and supporters, the language for anarchic pushing-and-shoving imbroglios like the Leafs 'n Habs dance above are typically referred to as "niggle," "biff," "fracas" or -- best of all -- "swinging handbags." Bowen and Millen would be better served using any of those, or (as above) use the original etymology and go back to "skirmish." Whatever, stop calling it a scrum.

To afficianados of rugby union, the scrum is a re-start of beauty ~ a controlled architectural life-force of organized teamwork that is unique to the sporting universe.

The scrum is passion and power combined with technique and finely tuned coordination.

(Photo - UWO vs. WLU varsity rugby. Credit: Jose Lagman. See more of Lagman's rugby pics at Rugby Canada.)

Listening to NHL and NFL colour commentators repeatedly misusing the word "scrum" sounds as dumbass as calling a hockey "penalty box" an "on-deck circle."

Which is to say, it looks & sounds foolishly ignorant and makes absolutely no historical or logical sense whatsoever.

Time for the professional "communications specialists" to brush-up on their communications skills and speak the language correctly.

Or is that too much to ask?


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