Amidst the sundry aggravations of contemporary life in these United States, few have such a cringe-inducing effect on me as a ubiquitous neologism that appeared eight times in a November column in the Wall Street Journal. The article in question speculated on the future contract possibilities of the wondrous Aaron Judge, whose 2022 campaign with the Yankees may have been the greatest offensive season in baseball history. But there is offensive, as in producing home runs and RBI, and then there is offensive, as in linguistic butchery. If you have any feeling for the beauty of the English language, brace yourself. What follows is akin to fingernails scraping down a blackboard:
“…his value to the Yankees or Giants includes more than simple run creation — it also represents a chance to prove to their restless fans bases that they are serious about winning titles.”
“Both clubs are feeling pressure from their respective fan bases to deliver a winning, exciting team…”
“Then there is the additional money they may be willing to spend to have him on the roster [to demonstrate] a commitment to winning to their angsty fan bases.”
“His presence will almost certainly go farthest in engendering goodwill between a front office and their fan base…”
“Their fan base has come to see owner Hal Steinbrenner as unnecessary[ily] frugal when it comes to roster building….”
“Judge is the most valuable homegrown player the Yankees have had since Derek Jeter and the organization would further erode trust with their customer base if they lose a bidding war to retain him.”
“The Giants find themselves in a similar position to the Yankees in needing to convey a message to their fan base this winter.”
“Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said earlier this month that club ownership hasn’t given him a ‘directive’ to sign a star player to appease their fan base…”
There isn’ a single instance in this farrago of faux-sociologese where the word “fans” (or in one case, “customers”) would not have sufficed to a) convey the meaning of the people being described and b) detoxify the prose. Yet throughout the herd of independent minds in the sportswriters’ guild, “fan base” is now universally deployed when “fans,” which worked well for decades if not centuries, is called for. And if the Journal’s Lindsey Adler embodies the future, this barbarism will befoul other perfectly acceptable nouns, such as “customers.”
I think we have the otherwise-enjoyable phenomenon of March Madness — college’s basketball’s annual championship tournament — to blame for this wretchedness. For if memory serves, it was longtime March Madness commentator Clark Kellogg who first began to deploy the terms “body of work” (previously known as “career”) and “fan base.” I initially thought these oddities innocent, if grating to the ear. But they have now achieved a status in the corruption of English that reminds me of Churchill’s description of the Germans sending a certain Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov back home from his Swiss exile in a sealed conveyance in 1917: “Lenin was sent into Russia by the Germans in the same way that you might send a phial containing a culture of typhoid or cholera to be poured into the water supply of a great city.”
All right. I exaggerate. But perhaps the exaggeration drives home the point. “Fan base” is ghastly English and its constant use debases one of this country’s finest cultural achievements — elegant sports writing of the sort found in Baseball: A Literary Anthology and The Great American Sports Page, both published by the Library of America. (The former includes John Updike’s classic essay, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” a majestic combination of reminiscence, reportage and eulogy that would have been D.O.A. if entitled “Boston Fan Base Says Goodbye to Ted Williams.”)
Why “fan base” and “body of work” have stuck when they are so painfully discordant is a mystery to me. Perhaps 21st century sports writers and TV talking-heads imagine that sounding like junior professors deploying bad English translated from worse German prevents their being dismissed as dumb jocks and locker room hangers-on. If that is the intention, the effect is the exact opposite.
We must pray that this plague does not bleed over into the life of the Church. “Faith community” is a mild skid into faux-sociologese, but more-or-less tolerable. But, please, purveyors of AmChurchSpeak: let us not start talking about parishioners as “congregation bases,” or the People of God in the Mystical Body of Christ as a “believer base” — still less a “religious consumer base”!
George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.