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Let's Look At The Language

July 16, 2011

'Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?' just not the same

When the Baltimore Orioles' third baseman took the field on May 30, 1982, not even Nostradamus could have foreseen that one of the most celebrated streaks in baseball was beginning at that very moment. The player was Cal Ripken Jr., whose 2,131st consecutive game on Sept. 6, 1995, surpassed Lou Gehrig's "unsurpassable" record.

Today is the anniversary of another streak that is at least as unsurpassable. On July 16, 1941, Yankee center fielder Joe DiMaggio extended his record hitting streak to 56 consecutive games. As surreal as a 56-game hitting streak seems, DiMaggio's streak-ending hitless game on July 17 was even more surreal for the fans (even the opposing team's fans) who had stopped considering that Joe D would not get a hit. To this day, the DiMaggio hitting streak remains a perfect example of what a thesaurus would call unmatched, unrivaled, unparalleled, unequaled, matchless, incomparable and even the more formal "unexampled."

Joseph Paul DiMaggio played his last Major League game three years before I was born, yet his iconic stature was so great that I feel as if I grew up in "his time."

When I was old enough to have a bicycle with baseball cards clothespinned to the spokes (yes, I now shudder at the thought), some of the neighborhood kids would brag that their dad had four DiMaggio cards, and then another kid would claim his dad saw DiMaggio play about a million times.

In the early 1960s, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio comprised most of what I knew about baseball. Long before I graduated to such cool phenomena as The Beatles and Steve McQueen, I believed that "cool" and "phenomenal" belonged only to the likes of Joltin' Joe and The Mick.

It would take a better analyst than I to explain why, among the many legends of baseball, Joe DiMaggio is especially pervasive in the language of our popular culture, but from my perspective, he really is. It's hard to talk about the man without a torrent of cultural references. In a "Joe DiMaggio Quiz," these are just some of the questions I would include:

1. What nickname meaning "a fast-sailing 19th-century New England ship" was given to Joe DiMaggio? (answer: "Yankee Clipper)"; 2. In what classic American novel does the old Cuban fisherman Santiago refer to "the great DiMaggio" several times? (answer: "The Old Man and the Sea" by Ernest Hemingway); 3. In the title of a song about the great hitting streak, Woody Guthrie wrote the often said but grammatically imperfect words "Joe DiMaggio ___ ___ ___." (answer: "Done It Again"); 4. What 1985 hit single (with a baseball position for its title) includes the lyrics "So Say Hey Willie, tell Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio…"? (answer: "Centerfield" by John Fogerty); 5. Why does Fred Mertz give Lucy Ricardo a baseball signed by Joe DiMaggio in the "I Love Lucy" episode "Lucy Is Enceinte"? (answer: He gave the ball as a gift for his future godson; note that enceinte, an archaic term for pregnant, was slipped past the 1952 censors who forbade the use of pregnant); 6. In "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio," a song made famous by the Les Brown Orchestra in 1941, the missing word in the line "He's glorified the ___ sphere" refers to the material once used to make baseballs; what is it? (answer: horsehide); 7. What song from the 1960s did DiMaggio dislike because it said he had "left and gone away," but later appreciated when it was explained by the lyricist how the wording actually honored his privacy, loyalty and dignity? (answer: Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson").

In a 1993 episode of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," we are told that fictional switch-hitter Buck Bokai broke Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak in the year 2026. Even though I experienced in real time the unlikely feat of the non-fictional Cal Ripken Jr., I can only shake my head at the Buck Bokai storyline and say, even for science fiction, that's just jumping the shark.

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? E-mail: languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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