On March 10 of this year, I registered an objection to use of the word "within" in sportscaster-slang. Here's my complaint: "Why in the living heck do they say that the Nuggets are "within" two points of the Lakers? "Within" means less than than
the proclaimed margin -- 1.9 points perhaps. Why not say that the
Nuggets are two points behind? Or trailing by two points? But not --
goodness gracious -- 'within'." Now, at the website Language Log, an accomplished young linguist, Benjamin Zimmer, has independently offered a theory of the origin of this idiom. He claims that "within" is short for "pull within," as in the case of a rower plying his oars to literally "pull" within a certain distance from his opponent. Over time, he says, "pull within" migrated from sports such as racing and rowing, which measure advantage in distance, to sports such as baseball and basketball, which measure advantage in discrete numbers, and where, he concedes, "the metaphorical fit was not exact." It's an interesting theory, and it might very well be correct. It's consoling to imagine that there's a reason for the irrational use of "within."
Zimmer is less persuasive when he moves from linguistics to chronology. He claims that "it became common by the mid-20th century for announcers and reporters to talk about teams pulling (to) within a certain number of runs, points, goals, or even games in the standings." He offers no evidence for the "mid-20th century" assertion. I can't say that my memory supports his version of history. I've been listening to basketball games on the radio since just after World War II, when the NBA succeeded the old BAA, and I'm moderately sure that I didn't hear the idiom "within two points" until the 1980s at the earliest. It was an unpleasant innovation in language that stuck painfully in my ear. To the best of my recollection, "within" was the relatively recent invention of Marv Albert -- one of his limited repertoire of linguistic tics. Others: "from downtown," "served up a facial," " yesss," "a spec-tac-ular move."
Marv Albert, it may be remembered, was a protege of the late great Marty Glickman, sprinter and sportscaster, and (regular readers of these essaylets will be delighted to learn) as far as I know the only genuine celebrity to have set foot in the fabled P. S. 217 schoolyard. Glickman would not have been proud of Albert, who is less well known for his creativity in language than for his strange sexual exploits. In 1997, Albert pled guilty to sexual assault. He had proved himself to be a man without a tad of castration anxiety and of exceptional, perhaps unparalleled, courage, when he first bit a woman fifteen times on the back, drawing blood, and then forced her to perform fellatio. A spec-tac-ular move!! Just a couple of months after the Albert nonchalance, Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield on both ears, taking quite a chunk out of one of them -- the left, I believe. I had high hopes for a great TV moment: the sportscaster Marv Albert interviews the boxer Iron Mike. Two Brooklyn boys discuss the theory and practice of oral incorporation. Yesss! May 19: On Language Log, Benjamin Zimmer responds to my reminiscence that "within two points" was a creation of the 1980s. He offers comprehensive evidence that the idiom "pull within" was in print as long ago as the 19th century. Although he hasn't offered a chronology for "within" without a preceding "pull," and hasn't discussed radio basketball (how would he access radio archives, even if they exist?), he's certainly a thorough and imaginative researcher.