Go to!: A sports adjective's new walk-off hit


Sun, May 08, 2005 - Page 9

The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, obsessively trying to wash her hands of imaginary blood, is observed by a Doctor of Physic and a horrified Waiting-Gentle-Woman. As Shakespeare's most famous villainess cries, "Out, damned spot!" the doctor whispers a warning to his fellow witness: "Go to, go to; you have known what you should not."

The meaning of the imperative go to, four centuries ago, was "beat it," now "geddoutahere" or, as those who cherish archaisms still say, "get thee hence." In our time, those two short words have fused into a compound adjective with a wholly different meaning, and that modifier is sweeping the language.

The Wall Street Journal notes that an ousted Morgan Stanley banker "believed a nimbler Morgan could thrive much like Goldman Sachs Group Inc does, as the go-to firm for companies doing big deals."

Newsweek reports about Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, "The doctor in Frist is a go-to guy on bioterrorism." And a Time magazine headline identifies Secretary of the Navy Gordon England, up for confirmation as deputy defense secretary, as "Rumsfeld's Go-to Guy."

Four years ago in this space, I underestimated the staying power of go-to, dismissing it as one of those football nonce terms like lonely end or scatback. Although the online Oxford English Dictionary does not yet have it, American Heritage's Fourth Unabridged defined it as the millennium began as "a player on an athletic team who is relied upon to make important plays, especially in clutch situations: `the team's go-to receiver.'" Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate edition, published in 2004, updates the go-to usage beyond its sports origin, to "relied on for expert knowledge or skill, 'the company's go-to guy."'

The earliest use I can find is in the April 5, 1985, Washington Post, when William Gildea, a staff writer, quoted the basketball coach John Wood of the Springairn Green Wave about his star, Sherman Douglas: "In a close game, we knew who to go to. When a game gets tough, you don't have to tell one guy to shoot and another guy not to shoot. They go to the person who gets the job done, and on our team Sherman was that person ... the go-to man."

The term has now transcended sports. In recent months, the fictional tomboy-detective Trixie Belden was described in the Chicago Tribune as "your go-to girl in `The Sasquatch Mystery,'" and the Dominion Post of Wellington, New Zealand, described Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as "President Bush's go-to gal for foreign policy."

Go-to, aided by its alliterative tie to guy and gal, is now neither slang nor lexicographically euphemized as "informal"; it is becoming as much a part of Standard English as go-ahead, a compound noun that has been with us since 1840. (This is in contrast to gofer, which sounds like "gopher"; that slang term means "a menial aide who `goes for' coffee" and is already fading.)

In the aforementioned American Heritage definition, the word clutch is closely associated with go-to, as the situation in which you turn to the one cool in a crisis. (You don't like the archaism aforementioned? Get thee hence!) Clutch has a variety of meanings, from the ancient verb "to claw" to the noun "a rapacious hand" (as in "to be in one's clutches") and now even "a small purse" held in manicured claws. Its origin as "a critical moment" is obscure, but this now standard sense of clutch was born in baseball. On June 2, 1929, the New York Times reported, "When a batter produces a safe `blow' at an opportune moment, his fellow players say that he has hit `in the saddle' or `in the clutch.'"


Let us place ourselves ahead of the lexical power curve. We have seen how a sports term -- go-to -- can cross the inside-lingo barrier to the general language. Consider now the potential of the baseball locution walk-off.

"Castillo Hits Walk-Off Homer," headlined the Joplin Globe of Missouri last month. At the same time, the Providence Journal cried, "Ventura's walk-off single caps Islanders' comeback."

"Like crabgrass invading someone's lawn," huffed Sports Illustrated five summers ago, "walk-off! has taken root in sports lingo and gotten out of control." The cliche-averse magazine noted that "without TV's dime-a-dozen talking heads repeating it endlessly and effusively, there would be no `Aaron Boone wins the game with a walk-off!' Instead, we would simply (and gracefully) call a game-ending home run what we've always called it -- a game-ending home run."

The neologism ignored this conservative brushback pitch to earn a place in the baseballese Hall of Fame. I checked with Paul Dickson, editor of The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary, whose earliest citation was from the Gannett News Service on July 30, 1988: "In Dennis Eckersley's colorful vocabulary, a walk-off piece is a home run that wins the game and the pitcher walks off the mound."

Disconsolately, of course. "The walk-off is a disaster for the pitcher," says Eckersley today, recalling in rue his pitch to Kirk Gibson of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who hit a homer that cost the Oakland Athletics Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. The former pitcher and neologist, who now analyzes the Boston Red Sox for the New England Sports Network, says: "That walk off the mound was brutal. I was devastated."

Walk has a history of successful suffixing. A walk-on is a short nonspeaking part for an actor; a walkout is a workers' strike; a walk-in is spookspeak for an unexpected defector or is a decorator's favorite closet; a walk-up is an apartment accessible only by stairs.