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.]

13 thoughts on “Bouncing

  1. Teresa,What a well written entry. You are very talented! PS: We are heading to Keeneland in April. I’ll email you separately for advice on things to see.

  2. My sixth grade teacher had an “All Questions Answered” box on his desk. During the week, we’d fill up the box with questions covering everything from, “what’s a mammal” to “who won the World Series in 1974”. I finally stumped him when I posed the question, “Who decides when a word becomes a word?”Brilliantly written post Teresa. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it…Alright, I gotta bounce…Keith

  3. So you drove me crazy. I’ve wasted an hour considering other racing based translations. This led me to discover that someone has created a doubletongue dictionary. Here are some of that publication’s curious words: dodgepot,flip, floater, new shooter, open (up) daylight, pinhook,redboard,spin, bug, breakage,bullet, bute, dog, hard knocker, heavy chalk, past posting, racing plate, tack . . .I will spare you more abuse. I am sure that you get the point. Also, you are to be congratulated, they missed “bounce.”

  4. Very interesting Teresa & something that never would have crossed my mind! Racing does seem to have its own language, or it uses the English language in its own way, as you have so wonderfully demonstrated. I remember when my Mom was still alive and I'd say something to her that you'd have to be a racing fan to understand. She would look at me and say, "Quit talking like a horse person!"

  5. Thanks, everyone, for the comments…this one was fun to write!Rich: when will you be there? I’ll be there Easter weekend, I think.Keith: you should be ashamed of that pun! (and for reminding me of a meaning that I missed)WG: And with bouncers on the racetrack, too?Anon: Ah, you are far too clever–well played! (though I hope you’re wrong…)Gib: Happy to have provided a little procrastination fodder.Elizabeth: your mother sounds like a wise woman…Linda: Thank you!

  6. Great column. Another anomaly is “Handily.” If a horse wins “handily” he’s won easily, possibly by a great margin. Typically a “handy” winner is being eased up as he crosses the wire.However when a horse trains in the morning and gets a comment “H” meaning “handily” it means he completed the work under urging, by the hands of the rider. A “B” for breezing means he completed the work without being urged by the rider. Contradictory? I think so.

  7. Fun entry. I don’t think, though, that the term bounce in racing is really counter-intuitive. It’s meant to infer that a horse’s good previous race will cause a counter-reaction (a rebound if you will) in its next race (ie. it’s next race is not so good). Think of bouncing a ball. If you drop it on a hard surface, it bounces (ie. goes the other way). Or a bounce back from a bad situation would represent the situation improving.

  8. From far off on the shore of the Pacific I read your comments and agree. The hacks out here over-use that word and the new over-usedword out here is RELAX.Every horse is urged to RELAXwhat a bunch of BS or should it be HS ?TurfGizard, retired syndicated handicapper just back fromHorseplayers World Series.LV

  9. Let me take a stab at the bounce thing. This term comes from the world of sheet players. They plot numbers on a sheet vertically, and positioned on the page so that lower numbers are shifted left.. Better numbers are lower, so a 5 is better than a 6, and appears further to the left. Kind of like reverse speed figures. Ok, so if a horse runs much faster than usual, the number shifts sharply to the left. If he runs a bad race the next time, it looks on the sheet like the number ‘bounces’ back from that better race. That’s my interpretation of how this term came to be used. Check out for examples of what I’m describing.

  10. Procol, anon 9:58, and Jeanne: thanks for the enlightening comments…I absolutely agree about the handily thing–just designed to be confusing, and the sheets info makes sense in terms of where the term came from. TurfGizard: you win the award for most exotic comment locale!

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