The Grammarphobia Blog

Lettering in sports

Q: When Pat was on WNYC recently, she discussed the quadrennial use of “medal” as a verb at the Olympics.  That reminded me of a similar athletic usage: the verb “letter” as in “He lettered in baseball and basketball.”

A: You’re right, and Pat wishes that thought had occurred to her while she was on the air.

We wrote a posting a couple of years ago about the use of “medal” as a verb. Although that exact usage is relatively new (it first showed up in the mid-1960s), an earlier version has been around since the 1820s.

Unfortunately, we didn’t mention in that blog item the similar use of “letter” as a verb in sports, but it’s never too late!

The Oxford English Dictionary says this is a North American usage meaning “to be awarded a varsity letter acknowledging achievement in a sport.” That italicized “in” means that generally an athlete is said to “letter in” something.

The OED’s earliest example, from a fraternity journal, is dated 1922: “John C. Pickett … not alone lettered in baseball but in a former year earned a letter in basketball.”

Oxford’s other citations include these:

1925: “He lettered in football, basketball, baseball, track and tennis, making a fine showing in all of them” (from an Illinois newspaper, the Decatur Review).

1971: “Campbell … was succeeded by Robert D. Wrenn, a Harvard student who lettered in football, hockey and baseball” (from Will Grimsley’s book Tennis).

2003: “Norwoods’s daughter, Sandra, lettered in three sports in high school” (from the Washington Post’s online edition).

It’s not surprising that this usage developed in North America, since the noun “letter” in the sports sense came from American athletics.

Here’s how the OED defines this sense of the noun: “An initial letter made of cloth, usually the first letter of the name of a school or university, awarded for achievement in sport and sewn on to the recipient’s coat or sweater.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from an 1897 issue of the Harvard Graduates Magazine (1897): “No student shall be allowed to use the letter ‘H’ in such a way as to appear to be a player on a Harvard team, except in accordance with the following rules….”

In 1915 the Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper of the University of Chicago, used the term this way: “The Board of Athletic Control will meet today to award letters to this year’s members of the track, baseball, tennis and gymnastic teams.”

Athletes who “letter” have been proudly collecting their “letters” ever since.

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