To be, or not to be, a “Red Sock”

The question arose, as these things have been known to do, as a result of a spirited discussion in the Red Sox Sales Academy, and came to my attention in an e-mail from sales associate Eric Finley.

“Myself and a few of my colleagues in the Red Sox Sales Academy,’’ Eric wrote, “have been debating the semantics of the proper way to make Sox a singular when talking.

“…This debate has stemmed from when David Price said that he was a “Red Sock” and has been going on ever since.’’

If only David knew what he started. I was reminded this was not just an idle conversation when I went to my first Sox Christmas party, and Gennifer Davidson demanded to know where I stood on the issue.

I told her that generally I wasn’t a fan of “Red Sock” and had avoided using it during my years as a reporter, although in reviewing my work I noticed I’d quoted Mike Napoli, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Varitek, among others, as saying “Red Sock.”

Clearly, someone with expertise needed to be summoned to address the matter, which is how I came to reach out to Steven Pinker, author of “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century’’ a book I’ve been reading. Pinker, it turns out, has taught at both MIT and Harvard, is considered one of America’s leading intellectuals, and, as he would tell me in an e-mail, also is a member of Sox Nation. Perfect.

So I reached out to him., sending an e-mail with the subject heading, “A challenge for only the boldest of linguists.”
“While reading “The Sense of Style,” I wrote, “an outrageous thought intruded. How would Steven Pinker address an issue that has confounded generations of sports writers, baseball players and their fans, not to mention a newly hired team historian: What is the singular of “Red Sox?”

“David Price, the left-handed pitcher with a Vanderbilt education and a J.P. Morgan bank account, declared, “I am a Red Sock,” as if he was something to be found at the bottom of a hamper, and one day almost certainly lost.

“Others who have worn the same uniform have said, “I am a Red Sox,” a grammatical construction that defies logic much like the unchartable course of a Tim Wakefield knuckleball. Does a game that allows for the one–a pitch that floats according to its own rules–allow for the other, a made-up word that flouts the conventional boundaries of grammar?

“You, good sir, are consumed with contemplations of a deeper order–I cannot visualize you and your philosopher wife, over a cup of coffee, discussing “Sox or Sock” without a large serving of silliness on the side. But should you, in a fit of whimsy, decide to offer an opinion, I would be most grateful.”

To my astonishment, Pinker responded almost immediately. Turns out that he’d given some thought to the matter, even before I reached out.

Here’s what Pinker wrote:

“First, it’s not up to me, or any linguist or lexicographer, to legislate the correct singular of Red Sox – we can only track usage and try to explain it. Here the people have spoken: As best I can tell, the more common expression is “I am a Red Sox,” though as you note, it’s just a statistical preference across the population, and one occasionally hears “Red Sock.”

“Here’s what’s going on: teams can be named in either of two ways. The original coiner could have a player in mind, and use some metaphor, metonym, or symbol to name him (as in the Lions, Tigers, or Bears). The team as a whole is then referred to by the plural of the name. We see this most clearly in the Toronto Maple Leafs – they are not the Maple Leaves, because the team as a whole is not conceived as a mass of foliage; each player is referred to by the proudly singular symbol of Canada, the Maple Leaf. Ditto for the Marlins, even though the usual plural of marlin is marlin.

“Alternatively, the original coiner could have the entire team in mind, and use a metaphor, metonym, or symbol to name the team. Thus we have the the Minnesota Timberwolves (not Timberwolfs, analogous to Maple Leafs), presumably because it’s easy to imagine the entire team as a pack of fast-breaking wolves. We see this even more clearly in those tacky mass-noun team names like the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat. Then, when it’s time to identify an individual player, a speaker has to struggle to identify the singular of a word that was never plural in the first place – “He was a Heat from 1990 to 1994, when he became a Magic.” That sounds awkward, but there is no alternative.

“Red Sox (and other X-rated teams such as the White Sox, Everett Aquasox, and West Tenn Diamond Jaxx) behave more like the Timberwolves and Heat than like the Lions, Tigers, or Bears. That is, way back in the mists of time the first coiner identified the entire team with either a pair of socks or with the entire mass of socks characteristically worn by the team. He did not start by identifying a player with a single sock. And like the long-suffering Heat and Magic fans, members of Red Sox nation then had to struggle with how to refer to one player. A red sox was the least-bad option. Of course the spelling of the team name with an “x” further discouraged thinking of the name for the team as the plural of the name for one of its players; the word looks like it could be a mass noun like Heat or Magic.

“Hope this helps,
“Steve (a member of Red Sox nation).’’

So, my fellow Sox (not Socks), we have some guidance. Not the final word, to be sure. Neither Pinker, nor Edes, would be so presumptuous. But hope this helps.

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