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Jewish World Review August 15, 2002 / 7 Elul, 5762

Geoffrey Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg
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Who becomes a "legend" most? | I was struck by the difference in the words that George Bush Senior and George Bush Junior used in their tributes to Ted Williams. The elder Bush called Williams "a great hero," whereas his son used the phrase "a baseball legend." Of course it's understandable that the two would think of Williams differently. Williams was no doubt a personal hero to Bush senior, himself a talented ballplayer and wartime Navy pilot. But you wouldn't expect Williams' name to have had the same resonance for Bush Junior, who was a Texas schoolboy when Williams was finishing his career, and whose relationship to both baseball and combat has been exclusively managerial.

But there's a generational difference between those words, too. In the press tributes to Williams, legend outnumbered hero by better than five to one -- and in fact when the press did call Williams a hero, the stories generally added something about his service as a Marine pilot, as if his baseball achievements alone didn't entirely justify the label. Of course some of that reflects a post-9/11 self-consciousness about using the word hero. But legend was nudging hero aside well before then. If you look at the way the press described players like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig between 1980 and 2000, you find that the use of hero declined by fifty percent, while the use of legend doubled.

That isn't to say that we've entirely left off expecting sports stars to be heroic -- at least we seem to hold Barry Bonds accountable for imperfections of character that we're willing to overlook in Sean Penn or Mick Jagger. But modern fans are much too hip and too knowing to put up with the hero-worshipping panegyric of pre-war sportswriters like Grantland Rice. People are more comfortable with the flip, self-referential banter of the talk shows on ESPN and Fox Sports Network, where the operant slogan seems to be "We are not impressed."

There's a sign of that shift in the disappearance of those heroic titles that the press used to bestow on players. I'm not thinking of simple nicknames like Dizzy, Babe, or Yogi -- there are still plenty of those around. But the modern media don't go in much for Homeric epithets like the Sultan of Swat, the Splendid Splinter, or the Yankee Clipper -- and when they do, the titles usually have a postmodern edge to them. It's hard to imagine Grantland Rice immortalizing any of the 1927 Yankees with a label like the Big Unit.

For that matter, Grantland Rice would never have described any player as a "legend," either, if only because back when he was writing the word could only refer to a story from popular folklore, not the person who inspired it. That new meaning of the word originated with the phrase "a legend in his own time," a phrase first used by Lytton Strachey to describe Florence Nightingale. But it wasn't until the 1970's or so that people began to use legend all by itself to refer to someone whose celebrity was especially long-lived.

That shift from hero to legend is the media's backhand way of celebrating its power -- the measure of someone's greatness now is not so much what he did as how long people kept talking about him. There can be unsung heroes, after all, but there are no unsung legends. And in fact the modern use of legend stands the traditional meaning of the word on its head. We never use the word to refer to someone whose fame is rooted in a genuine oral tradition -- we don't talk about "aeronautical legend Icarus" or "transportation legend Casey Jones." On the contrary, the people we describe as legends now are the furthest thing from legendary in the literal sense of the word -- they're people who have been the focus of media attention throughout their careers, the way Williams was. It's the media's way of investing their own creations with folkloric status.

It's true that there is a genuinely legendary aspect to Ted Williams' fame. At least it's certain that people would still be talking about him even if there had been no newspapers, radio, or TV around to document his accomplishments -- if he'd played in the early era of the game, or if he'd been born with the wrong skin color to play major-league ball, like the literally legendary greats of the Negro Leagues. But legend has a leveling effect -- it makes no distinction between people whose deeds are inherently memorable and celebrities who are pure media creations. Nose around in the press and you'll run into references to television legend Ed McMahon, entertainment legend Charo, modeling legend Twiggy, and pop legend Leo Sayer. It seems unfair to use the same label for Ted Williams and Leo Sayer -- after all, the one had 2654 career hits, and the other only had about two.

That semantic deflation is inevitable when we make celebrity the measure of achievement, particularly when celebrity is a commodity that's so easy to coin. In an age when everybody is famous for fifteen minutes, a legend is someone who has been in the limelight for half an hour. When the Yankees finished their new spring training facility in Tampa a couple of years ago they christened it Legends Field; if they were renaming it now I expect they'd call it Icon Field or Avatar Alley. In fact they have my permission to rename it Heroes Field, just as soon as someone on their roster hits for a .400 season.

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JWR contributor Geoffrey Nunberg is a Consulting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University. The author of, most recently, "The Way We Talk Now," he also chairs the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002, Geoffrey Nunberg