Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

March 24, 2009

Ask Mr. Etymology!

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 2:18 pm

My last post was rather winsomely entitled “Chalk Show,” and since its appearance I’ve received a steady stream of:

What do they mean when they use the term “chalk” when talking about the tournament, brackets, teams remaining, etc.?


“Chalk” refers to favorites in sports. Applied to college basketball in late March, the term denotes the higher seeded team in a game or the highest seeded team in a bracket. The word itself started its career as a betting term in horse racing.

Then again so did “pari-mutuel” and I don’t see anyone falling over themselves to drop that particular p-bomb this week. The beauty of “chalk” in particular is that in 2009 it represents the last best hope for pudgy men with soul-crushing jobs in tall office towers to still at least sound a little like Damon Runyon.

My understanding is this: Back when bicycles had outlandishly tall front wheels and the yellow press was alternately fighting traction trusts and starting wars in Cuba, bookies used to update odds for horse races on a chalkboard. Someone who placed their bet according to the odds–as opposed to relying on their keen instincts, intuition, or the horse’s cool name–was thus said to be following “the chalk.”

Fine. But then through a process that is still not entirely clear to me (since of course odds for all horses–favorites and long-shots alike–were written in chalk), the term came to be synonymous with the odds-on favorite. Thus today, with the top 12 seeds in the tournament all still alive, we say the bracket has been chalk, or it’s a chalkalicious tournament, or nice bracket chalkapottamus, or whatever you prefer.

BONUS thought wholly unrelated to words, hoops, or maybe even your interest! In today’s modern world, what with our self-winding film cameras and Otis elevator safety brake, I can go weeks without seeing an entire ad on TV. That of course is not an option in March. During the regular season I DVR almost all games of interest but this past weekend those games were far too numerous to take in after-the-fact. They had to be watched live.

In other words, after months of feeling only an occasional sprinkle I’ve just staggered weakly out of an absolute immersion in 15 feet of commercials. I am therefore now accepting nominations: your most and least favorite ads. Entries written up with suitably fervent praise or lucid damnation will be reproduced here. Winners to receive a hearty fist-bump from yours truly. (Yes, I will! O, the rapture!)  

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