seeded

Those of us who watch sports – especially tennis – may admit to some deep-seeded uncertainty about a particular usage. Oh, no, sorry, deep-seated uncertainty. The usage in question is when a player is referred to as, say, the fourth-seeded player. Or is that fourth-seated? Seated would make so much sense, wouldn’t it? If it’s a ranking, we tend to talk about where people sit in relation to others, so if someone is sitting in fourth place, they’re fourth-seated, no? Except no, not in this case.

The merger of unstressed /t/ and /d/ between vowels sows the seeds of confusion here: they both become not [d] but a light flap or tap of the tongue, represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet as [ɾ]. So seeded and seated sound the same for us in Canada and the US. The confusion is avoided in any version of English that keeps the /t/ crisp there – or turns it into a glottal stop, Cockney style. We could say that British dialects avoid this problematic direct competition more than North American ones do, generally.

Which is ironic, because the practice of seeding in sports tournaments originated in a desire to avoid problematic direct competitions that would eliminate important distinctions, and because, according to this 1924 quote from the Times, it was not so congenial to the British way of thinking:

This year, for the first time, the draw has been ‘seeded’; how little seeding accords with British notions may be gathered from there being no reference in the Oxford Dictionary—at any rate in the smaller one… In some countries the seeding is designed to keep the better players apart until the final stages.

Indeed, the first reference to seeding of this sort in the full-size Oxford English Dictionary is from 1898 in a periodical on American lawn tennis. So the Americans designed a way of avoiding problematic direct competitions in sports but in so doing created a problematic direct competition in language, while the British, who did not have the language problem, were more prone to the sport problem.

And what exactly is the sport problem? Well, in a multi-tiered playoff format, if there are random draws there is always the risk of the best competitors facing each other early on, resulting in early elimination of a competitor who would otherwise have a good chance at making it rather far. To avoid this, players known to be the best are seeded carefully – that is, placed with care in slots where they would be up against lesser players rather than each other. Just like carefully planting seeds in evenly spaced arrangement so that they will grow optimally, rather than simply scattering them carelessly.

This of course naturally led to a ranking of players, so that you knew who to keep apart for as long as possible and who could be put up against the best ones early on. The slots are prioritized for filling, with the best being seeded first: the first-seeded player. And so on. Thus those who hear “seated” will have to cede the point; we do not want this seed to grow into an eggcorn.

We may also note with interest that seat and seed come from similar-sounding roots all the way back from Proto-Indo-European through Proto-Germanic and into Old English and on up, but have always been different words meaning different things. And only now, after all those rounds, are they finally up against each other for an elimination round.

Thanks to Ron and Joan Callahan for suggesting today’s topic.

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