Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Winning and Losing

In the US, we often hear that there are winners and losers. Loser may be the worse pejorative term that is not considered profanity in US English.  My question today is this: Have we lost the meaning of win and lose in the United States. There is no question that the talking heads in the media have.

Before the 1994 Olympics, the ex-husband of a figure-skating competitor, Tonya Harding, hired someone to club the knee of another competitor, Nancy Kerrigan after practice.  I will discuss what competition has come to mean in the US another time.  The point I wish to make today is that Nancy recovered, skated in the Olympics and took second place after Ukrainian Oksana Baiul.  What I recall is the first question asked Kerrigan after she took the silver medal: “Nancy, how does it feel to lose?”

Now, Nancy had just demonstrated herself to be the second best figure-skater on the face of the Earth. In what conceivable sense had she lost?

The incident put into perspective the “fifth-down” football game between Colorado and Missouri. In 1990 Colorado University “won” a game on a fifth down play that judges allowed to stand under the misguided assumption that the referees are always right even when they are blatantly demonstrably wrong.  (Maybe we should examine sportsmanship at some point, too.)

These two instances teach us the difference between having the highest score and winning. In the Colorado-Missouri game, Colorado had the highest score officially but in every sense of the word they lost.  Nancy Kerrigan, although she did not have the greatest number of points, clearly won in every sense of that word. Silver medals in the Olympics are not assigned by a lottery; you have to win those, too.

Win does not mean “be the best” and lose does not mean “be the worst” as these terms are used in the US media. If you win the lottery, you just get it. If you win someone’s support, you just persuade them. Elsewhere, however, win means to achieve something through excellence above that of the competition. Notice this leaves plenty of room for excellence among those the press likes to call “losers”. 

3 Responses to “Winning and Losing”

  1. Adrian Morgan Says:

    I have no experience of the US media, but I’ve certainly noticed some people on the Internet using “lose” as the complement (rather than the opposite) of “win”. Describing a card game, for example, such people will say that one player wins and all the others lose. But when I played cards with my family as a child, the players who had not won would often continue the game in order to find out who’d “come second”, and it never occured to us that coming second could be thought of as losing. My linguistic prejudices being what they are, I find the use of “lose” to mean “not win” a most irritating one.

  2. rbeard Says:

    …though it fits right in with calling “good” things “bad”.

    This is interesting because in the history of language one of the changes we find is antonym subsitution, e.g. French blanc “white” and English “black”. “Cold” and “scald” come from the same original word. It seems a very improbable change but it may start out as slang substitutions just like these modern ones.

  3. Randy Says:

    “Second place is the first loser”

    It’s on a t-shirt.

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