When Twins catcher Joe Mauer was sidelined for two months of this season with "bilateral leg weakness," it sounded like a euphemism from a pharmaceutical ad, one in which a silver-haired man urges viewers to ask their doctors about BLW. Mauer was also waylaid this year by "extreme flulike symptoms," which were once known as "flulike symptoms," which were once known as "the flu."
In last week's All-Star Game, Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera suffered a strained oblique, which makes sense, as official injury designations are becoming increasingly strained and intentionally oblique.
"What is an ob-luh-kway?" my dad asked the other day, scanning the injury reports. When I said an "oh-bleek" was a side abdominal muscle, he said, "I'm sure we had those when I played college football, but I never heard the word."
That's because sports injuries used to come in six basic flavors: charley horse, raspberry, bruise, sprain, break and pull. (The pull had two subsidiary options: groin and hammy.) But somewhere along the line, breaks became fractures, cuts became lacerations and bruises became contusions. These contusions bred confusion, as they were designed to do. "The great enemy of clear language," wrote George Orwell, "is insincerity."
As a result, it's now difficult to tell, from an injury report, what's wrong with any given athlete. Worse than the overcooked descriptions are the undercooked ones. NFL injury reports are now a litany of body parts, set to children's music: Heads, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes.
Quarterback Tom Brady ("shoulder") spent four full seasons—2004 through '07—on the Patriots' famously mystifying injury list, during which time he never missed a game.
NHL injury reports are even more circumspect, often listing an "upper-body injury" or a "lower-body injury." This helps protect players from opponents eager to exploit a bruised thigh but is bewildering for the fan, to whom an upper-body injury might mean an infected navel, an itchy scalp or a lung transplant.
Still, the opposite kind of injury description—overloaded with medical jargon—remains the knee-jerk preference, even regarding knees incapable of jerking. When Tiger Woods announced on his website this spring that he suffered a "Grade 1 mild medial collateral ligament sprain to his left knee," golf fans were left to presume that knees are like Buffalo wings, and Grade 1 Mild is the least potent designation.
In 2009, Ken Griffey Jr. sat out with an "inflamed colon," which he mercifully translated into English for his audience. "It just feels like someone kicked you in the damn side," said Griffey, who then told reporters, with a smile: "I would be more than happy to demonstrate it on you." Wouldn't it be nice if injury lists were always this straightforward: Griffey, day-to-day (feels like he was kicked in the damn side).
Sometimes plain language is plainly uncalled for. John Madden has repudiated the old culture of football, in which a concussed player was described as having had his bell rung. Madden now promotes sensitivity to head injuries, in part through his Madden 12 video game, in which virtually concussed players must leave the game. It's no longer acceptable for announcers to say that a hockey player had his clock cleaned when in fact he has suffered a Grade 3 concussion.
But there's no such cultural enlightenment regarding other injuries, leaving most of us in the dark as to what Brewers pitcher Mitch Stetter is now suffering while nursing a "labral irritation of the left hip." Cardinals hurler Brian Tallet has a "right intercostal strain," which holds a raised middle finger to our collective understanding, something that can't be said of Indians pitcher Alex White, whose "injured right middle finger" is a small victory for clear language.
Such victories are increasingly rare. In 2006, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was diagnosed with a "transient subluxation event in the setting of a fatigued shoulder." At the time manager Terry Francona said of the transient subluxation, "It sounds like the guy who lives under the bridge." This summer, though, when Sox shortstop Jed Lowrie left a game after aggravating his injured left shoulder, Francona said, "He felt that there was a mild subluxation." The phrase has entered the baseball lexicon.
So the jargon has been accepted, and there's no going back. The bullet train has left the station. It's an intercoastal train, pulling intercostal strains and mild subluxations. A subluxation, incidentally, is a partial dislocation. A mild subluxation, then, is a partial partial dislocation. If that doesn't make sense, good: You're not supposed to understand. Speaking clearly doesn't convey the appearance of being an insider, of knowing all the passwords and secret handshakes. As former Yale president Kingman Brewster Jr. once said, "Incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession."
To the outsider, Joe Mauer—playing again after bilateral leg weakness—appears to have had tired legs. But don't expect to read that in an injury report. Fans will continue to feel, when scanning the DL, as if someone is pulling their legs. Not bilaterally, mind you, but one at a time.
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Bruises became contusions, WHICH BRED CONFUSION, as they were designed to do.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW