To Spiral (transitive)

I have only seen the trailer for the new NFL documentary, The Forward Pass: A Football Life, but I’m hoping to catch the whole thing soon, and not just because it features my Sewanee friend, Joe Wiegand, as Teddy Roosevelt. Unsurprisingly, I also have a pedantic reason (and hence follows a post with some implausible twists and turns).

A few years ago, I was teaching the Aeneid and came across the line in Book 9 where Aeneas’ arch-enemy, Turnus, is said to iaculum attorquens emittit in auras. Now, as I recall, my class was fine with most of the sentence, translated roughly as “he threw the javelin into the air,” but they were not entirely sure what to do with attorquens.  According to Lewis and Short, one of the standard Latin dictionaries, attorqueo means “to hurl or swing upward (ad designating direction upward …),” but my students weren’t buying it. “He already said he threw it with emittit,” one noted.  “Attorquens has to do with the way he’s throwing it,” another insisted.

My suggestion was that, as attorqueo is derived from torqueo (“to turn or twist”), perhaps it meant either that Turnus turned suddenly to throw the iaculum, or that he threw it in a spiraling fashion, “as when,” I said, “throwing a forward pass in football.”  My students preferred this latter interpretation, although none of us knew anything about javelin-throwing, but we ended with the possible suggestion that the line meant, “He spiraled the javelin into the air.” (I am full prepared to renounce this suggestion, by the way, if anyone knows better!)  We went on to discuss how Turnus here was imitating ancient fetial practice–in which war is declared when a priest hurls a ceremonial spear into enemy territory–and how awesome that ritual must have been.

Later I wondered whether the verb “to spiral,” as a transitive verb, was ever used of anything other than a football.  I decided to check the OED, and much to my astonishment, there was in fact no entry for “spiral” cited in this way.  The closest they seem to come is this:

trans. To twist or coil spirally.

1876   F. Francis Bk. Angling (ed. 4) vi. 225   Spiral it round to lash it on to the hook.

Well, I thought fumed, it seems these English lexicographers are not up on their American football!  I resolved solemnly at that moment to find some undeniable attestations of this perfectly good American verb usage to force them to recognize in print their ignorance, and then I promptly forgot all about it until this moment.

Double-checking the matter now, though, I see that the OED people remain steadfastly in the dark about “spiral,” and hence this half-hearted attempt to make good my vow.  While the forward pass itself dates to the late 19th century, the first “spiral pass” is attributed to “Bosey” Reiter, a coach at Wesleyan, who taught the throw to his quarterback, Sammy Moore, in 1906. Was he in fact the first?  Naturally, there are bitter disputes over this, and no doubt the NFL documentary will have more on the matter.

But what of “spiral”? According to a newspaper report from 1907,

Coach ‘Bosey’ Reiter of the Wesleyan football team announces that an endeavor will be made at Wesleyan this year to develop a fast eleven and one than can handle the spiral forward pass …

This is close, but “spiral” as an adjective is not precisely what I am looking for here. I’m wanting the full noun-into-verb “functional conversion,” as the linguists call it when users change the class of a word simply by using it in a different grammatical context.  To use the precise term for this linguistic shift, it’s called anthimeria, but if you’ve read “Calvin and Hobbes,” you’re already familiar with the practice.

calvin-and-hobbesAnyway, loathe as I am to do any actual work, I looked at Google Books for more about “to spiral,” and came across this passage from 1930’s Offensive Line Play in Football, by Howard Joseph Hancock:

In teaching this type of pass to a player who is unable at first to spiral the ball, it might be well to have the player practice only with his right hand  …

Still better, though a little later, is this gem from Interpretations of Physical Education by Jay Bryan Nash (1932)

Moral conduct must be practiced to be learned, just as punting must be practiced to learn to “spiral” the ball.

It would be churlish to ask such an earnest author whether practicing punting helps with spiraling at all, I suppose.  But in any event, there you have it: the earliest attestation of “to spiral (transitive), to throw a ball so that it turns about on its axis (American football)” is from 1930, and is perhaps an acceptable translation of Latin attorqueo. 

If I’m wrong about any of this, come and get me, coppers. In the meantime, enjoy the following graphic from The Roosevelts website:


About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in England, Language & Etymology, Sewanee, Sports & Games. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to To Spiral (transitive)

  1. timtrue says:

    You spiral my mind.

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