Thursday, 19 March 2009

Too extreme for words

Some of us at Chambers have banded together to take part in a charity white-water rafting race on Saturday (yes, white-water rafting in Scotland in March – it’s going to be rather chilly). Forming the fundraising group on Facebook meant we had to decide what type of group it was. Sport, undoubtedly, but what category? We plumped for ‘extreme sports’.

Any sport forms a vocabulary of its own with words and meanings unique to it: think of the intense air of excitement a corner conjures up in football compared to the relative drabness of the corner of your living room, or the fundamental differences between a metal fencing piste and a snowy skiing piste. But extreme sports require a vocabulary that is rather more… extreme.

For a start, the language used by extreme sports fanatics tends to be exceedingly earthy. Swearing is often regarded as a sign of a poor vocabulary (even if the delectably filthy Chambers Slang Dictionary would beg to differ), but perhaps there is something about these sports that is too extreme for everyday words, something that transcends the boundaries of polite conversation.

However, it is not just swear words that are employed to try to convey the sheer intensity of the adrenaline rush involved. ‘Wicked’, ‘awesome’, ‘to the max’, ‘gnarly’, ‘sick’, the rather telling ‘mental’ and, of course, ‘extreme’ are just some of the examples that are familiar from modern mainstream usage. If the manoeuvre you had planned didn’t quite work out, you might describe it as ‘carnage’.

While carnage is a frequent occurrence, most people do emerge unscathed. With such dangerous sports, safety is paramount so the worst only happens very rarely. However, when it does, the euphemisms tend to be more polite, more gentle, and rarely found in any sporting glossaries. In skydiving, for example, ‘hooking in’ [a fast, downwards turn performed close to the ground before you land] is very dangerous, and, unlike football, being ‘in the corner’ [performing such a turn too close to the ground] can kill. The phrase no skydiver wants to hear is that one of their friends ‘went in’ at the weekend.

As long as extreme sports remain minority sports, the extreme meanings of these words will remain outside of the mainstream. But that’s probably how they’d like to be. A bit maverick, a bit ‘mental’, and slightly smug that they’re in on something amazing that the rest of us have no idea about.

P.S. The white-water rafting is taking place on Saturday 21st of March in aid of Chest, Heart and Stroke Scotland. If you’re interested in supporting us, the Facebook group is called ‘Chambers Rafting’ and our Justgiving page is Thank you!

Naomi Farmer

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