Word Matters Podcast

What It Means to Call an 'Audible'

Word Matters, Episode 64

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How did 'audible' move from the football huddle to general conversation?

And why do we have both 'inexplicable' and 'unexplainable'?

Download the episode here.


Ammon Shea: It comes up in football quite often in the 1950s, '60s, and through the present. What I thought was interesting is this question of when did it make the switch from football to mainstream?

Peter Sokolowski: Many times when we have these sort of synonym pairs, we often have one word that comes essentially from a Latin etymology and one word that comes from an old English etymology.

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, we tackle a listener question and explain inexplicable. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionaries vantage point. My podcast partners and I were all ready to discuss some fascinating language when circumstances required that I call an audible and sit out a couple episodes. Happily, Ammon and Peter were more than adequately prepared to answer a listener question, this time about the word audible itself.

Ammon Shea: A listener wrote in with a question about audible, the word. Wrote that a pair of podcasts they listened to used the term audible to mean a replacement and explained that a cursory search showed that audible is a sports term from American football with that "replacement" meaning. They thought, however, it was very interesting to see it used in an audio medium where audible does in fact have a related association with the business, and a business that's a not-infrequent sponsor for podcasts. And they initially thought that it might have been an ad for Audible, the podcast company, and suspected that this term would slip into obscurity, given the confusion, and I guess wanted to know if audible as a synonym for a replacement was so readily understood outside of its sports context.

I have to admit that what I know about football, in fact I can only think of one person in the world who perhaps knows less about football than I do, and he's talking to me right now. So in that sense, Peter and I are perhaps the worst possible people to ask this question of, but we do define audible as a noun, of course. It's an American football term and we define it as "a substitute offensive or defensive play called at the line of scrimmage, a last minute change." Peter, were you familiar with this at all?

Peter Sokolowski: Oh sure. Because football is so popular, I have heard it used in various contexts that have nothing to do with sports, but mean a very quick change made on the spot, just according to circumstances. And I've always understood it that way. You know that on the scrimmage line, there is a lot of yelling just before the play. And that's presumably the kind of moment where audibles take place.

Ammon Shea: I was somewhat familiar with audible recently as a term of just making a last minute change. But I did look into this a little bit and it turns out that it's been used as a football term since the 1950s. There's evidence of it in print since 1953. And in a lot of the early use, it seems to be a kind of a shorthand for an audible signal. There's a line from the Los Angeles Times, 1953, wherein a quarterback is describing the process and he writes, "Then he will hurriedly change the play with an audible signal, such as 'let's get pneumonia,'" presumably as code for some signal. And it comes up in football quite often in the 1950s, '60s. And through the present.

What I thought was interesting is this question of when did it make the switch from football to mainstream? I did find in the San Francisco Examiner, a very early classified ad where somebody was selling a car, a Ford Fairlane, in 1958, and this is not an obvious use, but whoever it is wrote, "'57 Ford Fairlane Victoria, radio, heater, Ford-O-Matic, power steering. Call an audible and you'll make a nice gainer." Whoever it is that placed the ad is certainly writing "call an audible." And it's not entirely clear if this is in reference to make a replacement or kind of extended meaning of audible.

Peter Sokolowski: Do you think that that ad had an intended audience of principally men, fans of football would understand this?

Ammon Shea: It's possible, but what I know about Fords from the 1950s is even less than what I know about football.

Peter Sokolowski: It was a family car, and at that time it might have been the marketing people's understanding that the man of the house would make this kind of decision. It just seems like it's appealing to a masculine audience.

Ammon Shea: Well, that's true, and that is interesting because that does come up later in uses where people are talking about audible in a generalized sense, it's within the context of using it around men. I'll get to that in just a minute. But what I wanted to point out is that by the 1960s, we do see definite use of audible outside of a football context. Somebody writes, "I was wrong about Highway 81. It was washed out the week. It was supposed to be saluted. And the halftime chairman had to call an audible." This is in reference to John Phillips Sousa marches that were supposed to be played, and admittedly at a football halftime show, but they are talking about calling an audible, not specifically about football. It was about selections of music played at a football game. This was in 1968 in the Los Angeles Times. What's interesting is that this is a kind of a logical transition for a word to make from a kind of technical football term that it's being used in a football context, not specifically about football. And then in the 1980s, we start seeing it in a slightly more removed context. There was an article about John McEnroe and his upcoming performance at a British tennis tournament. And it was Kramer, somebody who's talking about McEnroe, "thinks McEnroe may call an audible and present the Dr. Jekyll side people say they see in private." And so the supposition here is that John McEnroe will call an audible and change his personality at the last minute. Now it's about sports, right? So it's still related in some way, but it's talking about how he's going to behave personally, rather than an actual sports play.

Peter Sokolowski: And also, I think something that's significant is presumably written by a journalist who specializes in sports. Those journalists are exposed to the jargon of their subject so that they hear these terms on the field or in the locker rooms, and then they start using those terms in their writing or in their announcing or in their commentary on television. And that brings it into homes.

Ammon Shea: You do start to see this gradual branching out that happens with words like this. It's a very logical progression from a technical thing into its kind of semantic drift. And one of the things that I thought was most interesting about that was a citation from Parents Magazine in October of 1982. And it was a woman writing about the difficulty she had had in functioning as a lawyer in the male-dominant business world and the ways in which she was belittled or demeaned or talked down to, et cetera. Anyway, she had been dealing with that and she wrote, "Now I know what it means. One of the males I work with tells me to set up a seminar in a way that he can, quote, call an audible." And then there's a bracket saying "a football term that means to make a last minute change." There's several things that are interesting about that. One is that it's showing that it is more male-oriented language, or seen that way at the time, perhaps in light of its relationship to football. But also, it's writing about colloquial use. So it's writing about how men use this in conversation, which is something that we've seen before, that oftentimes words will change meaning in spoken form before we see the meaning come up in written form.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly. So it's already gone through that morph and then we record it.

Ammon Shea: Right. And in terms of the listener's original question, whether this works in podcasting, I think what happens is that it kind of comes up now as a pun. We do see plenty of evidence of this being used. In Winnipeg Free Press: "A global pandemic sure can force someone to call an audible on their day to day life." It is now totally removed from the actual scrimmage line, and now it's functioning, as well as people using it in a football term, it has a separate meaning, which is just people use it to make a change. But it's got a kind of nice play on language when you in an audio field such as podcasting. There was an interesting article in 2020 titled "Scholarship and Practice of Undergraduate Research." Danielle Johansen was writing about a writing course at University of Michigan in which students were coming up with a sports-themed podcast on campus, and they decided to call it Calling an Audible, which is kind of coming back around. It's tongue in cheek, it's playful, it's ludic. And there's no reason why you couldn't have Calling an Audible functioning in an audible sense like that. It's probably time for us to edit our definition and either add a sense to the American football sense or just kind of remove that it's entirely American football, because you do see a lot more use of calling an audible out of sports context.

One of the things that's interesting, if you just change the tense that you're using instead of called an audible, if you look for going to call an audible, in future, and you type that into Twitter, you see all kinds of people using it. And almost none of them are in football. "I'm going to call an audible and say, I'll allow it." "Change of plans, I think I'm going to call an audible and make pork belly burnt ends instead of smoking the belly whole." It's people saying, "I'm going to change my mind." And in these cases, when you're talking about the future tense, plans to change your mind, it is almost never related to sports.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, but what this really says, it speaks to the ubiquity of football in American culture today. And it wasn't always so. America's favorite pastime of baseball was actually much more popular. We have absorbed in the general census, some baseball metaphors like home run or three strikes or strikeout even, which are used metaphorically very comfortably and have been for a very long time. My point is that the culture has absorbed them. And now we're absorbing words from football, which is just simply more popular now than it used to be. So it kind of makes sense. Looking at the entry, I would think it's important to keep the football context, but then add a second sense.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. Peter and Ammon will be back in a minute to address the inexplicable popularity of inexplicable over its synonym, unexplainable. Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokoloski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a Brief Look at the History and Definition of One Word, available at Merriam-Webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM Podcast Hub at nepm.org,

Emily Brewster: English speakers frequently encounter situations in which more than one word can do the job of communicating a given meaning. That is, they often find themselves in circumstances where multiple words can be applied to say the same thing. But it's also not infrequently the case that one synonym dominates, and for reasons that are pretty unexplainable, or inexplicable. Peter explains.

Peter Sokolowski: One of the intriguing things about adjectives in English, and I've been fascinated by adjectives recently, is that we have so many that are essentially synonymous if you just simply take their basic meaning. But we don't actually use them to mean the same thing. In other words, they're synonymous, but they have a usage that's different and usage is this sort of amorphous thing in lexicography. Defining an entry, defining a word is straightforward enough. You see how the word is used in context, you see the kind of weight that it carries in a sentence, and you can derive a definition from that. But then you look at something else, which is the company that it keeps, and words often can mean the same thing, but keep different company. So they're used in different ways, and that's what we call usage. And sometimes that means something very basic, like a word is archaic, or it's chiefly British, or it's somehow regional or offensive in some different way.

But sometimes it's even more subtle than that. It's hard to express the difference in meaning between, for example, the words trusty and trusted. And yet we don't really use them in the same way. I would say trusted friend, but a trusty hammer, that kind of thing. In English, we have so many words that mean large or big. We have huge and enormous and great and gargantuan and gigantic and ginormous. English is unusually rich in terms that mean the same thing, in that case terms that mean big or large, but the pair that I want to concentrate on today is an interesting one. This is the pair that includes inexplicable and unexplainable. It's an interesting case because many times when we have these sort of synonym pairs, we often have one word that comes essentially from a Latin etymology and one word that comes from an old English etymology. So an example of this would be feasible versus doable. So Latin versus English, or numerous and many, or amicable and friendly, or one I like is lucky and fortunate. And so we have all of these that are clearly pairs, they're clearly broadly synonymous, and we might not use them exactly the same way, but we certainly would understand them if they were interchanged. But inexplicable and unexplainable have a little bit of explaining to do because they both have Latin roots and they compete for that same lexical space. To get into this. Let's first talk about the root words. Explain and explicate are the verbs and they have very straightforward histories. Explain comes from the Latin planus, meaning "flat." So that is the same root as the word plain, as in to make plain, to be easy to understand or clear. Weirdly enough, that's also the root of the word plane P-L-A-N-E, meaning a flat or level surface or the tool that makes wood flat and level.

So those two plains in English actually come from the same Latin root, but explain literally means to make flat, or to make level, or to make plain. To make plain means to make clear, and that's what explain means. I like having a word that you can break apart like that. And explicate is the same way because the plicate of explicate comes from placare in Latin, meaning to fold. So explicate means to unfold or to fold out. And therefore, if you were thinking of a map or something, it's something that makes something more visible, more clear, more easy to understand. We have other related words that come from that root, like a complicit/implicit/explicit, which means to fold together, to fold inward, to fold out. And then the word complicate of course also means to fold together. So we have these uses of this word and the ply, the P-L-Y, ply, is a word we use in English, meaning to bend or to fold, or as now it means a layer, as in plywood.

But when we turn these into adjectives, we add the -able ending. So explainable, explicable, and those are completely predictable, very understandable. Notice what we're doing with this Latin ending. But what happened when we make these terms negative is interesting because they went in two different ways, two different paths, because explicable and inexplicable are much more frequent than explainable and unexplainable today in English. And there's no logical reason for this kind of weird crisscrossing. And when I say it's crisscrossing it's because explain is the plain version of this, explain is the household term it's the more popular term.

Ammon Shea: You don't say, "Please explicate."

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly. It's kind of interesting because what we do is we've turned explicate into the kind of literary or scientific term, like you explicate scripture, for example, but you just explain baseball. So we do have a kind of, almost like a register difference between these two words. I would argue that explain has been more, in some sense, Anglicized, it's been more absorbed into the language, which is probably why it adopted the English prefix un-, because un- is English, but in- is Latin. So unexplainable is attaching the Old English prefix with the Latin-based adjective. And so that's one way these two words differ. One is more Anglicized as unexplainable and the other one retains Latin-ness with inexplicable. And that's where they split in morphological terms.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that has always interested me about these synonymous yet not synonymous adjectives is the things that they're used in slightly different context. It was about 15 years ago when Orion Montoya was building some corpa for Oxford and he gave this great presentation on the difference between quirky and eccentric, and how gendered they were. For instance, that your uncle was much more likely to be eccentric than your aunt, or a billionaire was thought to be eccentric. You don't have a quirky billionaire. You have eccentric billionaires. And yet quirky is for young women. This is not a defined difference, but this is just the way that many people use them. It's like an unwritten guideline.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, these are exactly what I mean, the company these words keeps. And Ammon, wasn't there another adjective that was very gendered?

Ammon Shea: One of the most peculiar ones that I found is affable. At least our citation files and all the ones that I've checked elsewhere, affable is almost always used to refer to men. It's a highly gendered adjective, even though we don't think of adjectives typically as gendered. In fact, when I first checked it, I think I looked in our files and we had 50 citations. 49 of them, affable was used to refer to a man. Of the 50th, it was used to refer to a woman who was dressing as a man. And there's no reason why. I mean, of course women are just as affable as men. If you ask most people, is this a gendered adjective, they wouldn't say that it was, but we've kind of unconsciously adopted this.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely. That's really what usage is. It's about the company that words keep. And so that we see that's more frequently encountered in one context than another. One thing that's interesting about the terms unexplainable and inexplicable in English, I looked into the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which has about a billion words, and it shows that the word inexplicable is used more than four times more than the word unexplainable in written in English, in published written English. So what we see is that these are words that clearly have found their slots. We have an excess of vocabulary in English, this richness, and yet the words sort of find their own level. They find their own register. And somehow we've decided that these two words have a happy coexistence, that we're going to use them both, and we are going to shave off ever finer distinctions when we use them. One thing that's interesting about inexplicable is that we don't use the word explicable that frequently, so we use the negative much more than we use the positive. And there are a few adjectives that are like that, like the word ineffable. It's much more frequently used than effable. Or irreconcilable or inextricable or unfathomable or irrevocable. We in English sometimes like these kind of technical, Latin-based terms to sound even more technical by adding that prefix.

Ammon Shea: You think it's just that five syllable words are more fun to say than four syllable words?

Peter Sokolowski: I'm sure there is a natural tendency toward that.

Ammon Shea: That could be it, yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: It's possible also that the long words convey authority and that's really exactly what people are seeking.

Ammon Shea: Semantic heft.

Peter Sokolowski: There we go. It's sometimes inexplicable.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us npm.org. And for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs visit Merriam-Webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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