The wonderfully whimsical world of racing language offers a seemingly unending array of linguistic puzzles. We’ve got “breezed” and “placed,” previously discussed here, and lately, I’ve been thinking about “bounce.”
One need not consult a dictionary to determine the word’s literal and figurative meanings, which in most cases are positive when the word is used in the active voice. (If you’re like my students, here’s where you start daydreaming about what to have for lunch. Or what might be happening on Facebook. And I try to pull you back with a couple of examples.) If I bounce you from the first round, I’ve soundly defeated you–and that’s good. If I bounce back, I’ve rebounded quickly–and that’s good. If I bounce down the street, I’m probably pretty happy–and that’s good (cf. Tigger).
(The notable exception here, of course, is bouncing a check.)
Even the word’s most literal meaning is positive: an object makes contact with a hard surface; from that impact, the object gains the energy to soar. From the negative (the impact) comes the positive (the energized movement) (physicists: I await your derisive comments).
Leave it to racing to screw up this natural phenomenon. When I first started paying attention to racing and I heard people around me say, “That horse is due to bounce off his last effort,” I’d think, “Great! He’s going to rebound off a bad race!” And then I’d read the past performances, and puzzle over that excellent previous effort, and wonder why the commentators were heading to the windows to place their bets assiduously on other horses.
I felt excluded from the club, observing a world through the looking glass, as I did when a horse that I saw finish third was described to have “placed”—and I grasped that a horse could, laws of physics be damned, place and show simultaneously.
For a “bounce” to be bad is marvelously counter-intuitive (though we’ve all had our share of bad bounces), and racing would be in good company in the ways in which it’s
manipulated shaped and created meaning. Shakespeare, after all, is said to have introduced well over a thousand words to English, and academics groove on the mutability of language, on the idea that a word has no fixed meaning, that definitions are shaped by the way that we use language, rather than the way we use language being shaped by definitions (what a stodgy notion! Authority!).
And of course, racing, in molding language to its own uses, nonsensical though they may be, might do well to make sure that it doesn’t end up in quite the same predicament as another language-shaper…
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
[For a far better reflection than this one on the nature of language—and one that inspired the Humpty Dumpty reference (though Tigger is mine, all mine)– check out Edward Rothstein’s terrific dictionary review (I swear!) from 2000.]