Friday, 24 May 2013

Part XLI - Sport and Slang

This is part of a series discussing Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen.  The tenth chapter is titled Modern Survivals of Prowess.

Given that Veblen believed the leisure class had tendencies for aggressive behaviour, he was concerned about the possibility of such persons to influence young lives in organisations such as ‘boys brigades’, which he felt were militaristic.  Given what I’ve read about the founding fathers of the Boys Brigade and the Boy Scouts, I wouldn’t say his concerns were unfounded.  They were both started here in Britain by men with military backgrounds. The early controversies about the Boy Scouts is  an interesting read.

Veblen was also concerned about ‘college spirit’ and athletics and the like in institutions for higher learning.  He felt that sports were a form of ‘adventuresome exploit’ and were ‘expression of emulative, partly activities deliberately entered upon with a view to gaining repute for prowess’.  One can hardly argue with this.  He lumped together prize-fights, bullfights, athletics, shooting, angling, yachting and games of skill.  Even if a few of these sports were not terribly physical and destructive they involved moving from a basis of hostile combat to developing skill and on to ‘cunning and chicanery’.  (Hmmm…can I add cycling to this list?). 

He said the boyish ‘addiction to sports’ indicated arrested development of a man’s moral character.  As with other comparisons, he again links members of the hereditary leisure class with the delinquent members of the lower classes in their obsession with sports.  (Given the mayhem created by those earning the title 'football yob' I must admit there is some mileage in his claim.)  

Veblen also thought there was an appreciable amount of ‘make believe’ in sporting, though not to the same extent with all games. 
“It is noticeable, for instance, that even very mild-mannered and matter-of-fact men who go out shooting are apt to carry an excess of arms and accoutrements in order to impress upon their own imagination the seriousness of their undertaking. These huntsmen are also prone to a histrionic, prancing gait and to an elaborate exaggeration of the motions, whether of stealth or of onslaught, involved in their deeds of exploit. Similarly in athletic sports there is almost invariably present a good share of rant and swagger and ostensible mystification — features which mark the histrionic nature of these employments.”

As a woman, I have to chuckle when I read this; it’s one of the things I like best about Veblen.  He also points out that sport (particularly football) is not only predatory, but it is a useless activity.  Of course, as an economist he would be unlikely to view sport – particularly professional sports – in the same light, but when he was writing there was nothing like the financial rewards there are today.

He also claims there is a great deal of slang involved in athletics which is largely drawn from ‘extremely sanguinary locutions borrowed from the terminology of warfare.’   I’ve looked for, but not found examples of this slang.  The commonalities of sports and war are well recognised, however, and I found some of the websites about slang in the military (I chose to link to WW I language; current slang is not as cute) and slang following the two world wars vaguely amusing.  

I really cracked up, though, when Veblen asserted
"Except where it is adopted as a necessary means of secret communication, the use of a special slang in any employment is probably to be accepted as evidence that the occupation in question is substantially make-believe."

Part of the growing cynicism I experienced at work before I retired was my frustration with the increasing use of weird words.  Have you ever played Buzzword Bingo?  Personally, I wish we could go back to mushy fruit and rotten apple throwing.

I have to say that Veblen is spot on with ‘make believe’.  Another thing he nailed is [emphasis mine]
“Sportsmen — hunters and anglers — are more or less in the habit of assigning a love of nature, the need of recreation, and the like, as the incentives to their favorite pastime. These motives are no doubt frequently present and make up a part of the attractiveness of the sportsman’s life; but these cannot be the chief incentives. These ostensible needs could be more readily and fully satisfied without the accompaniment of a systematic effort to take the life of those creatures that make up an essential feature of that “nature” that is beloved by the sportsman.”

My second husband was a keen hunter of deer and I can’t tell you how many times he told me how beautiful, how intelligent, graceful, sensitive, etc., he thought deer were.  Makes me kind of glad our marriage fell apart; in time he might have come after me with a bow and arrow.

1 comment:

Gam Kau said...

Ah, so this explains the emphasis on sports in the public schools (Eton, Harrow, etc.)