Lateral thinking

Words are powerful little packages. We take them for granted, and don’t always consider all of the hidden meanings behind the words we choose. However, we too often look at the written word, and ignore the sounds of the same word as an utterance. Only then do you appreciate the rhymes, the meter, and the possibilities of mistaken pronunciations.

How much of what we call “lateral thinking” — the joining of previously non-adjacent concepts — is really the product of a pun or a bad translation? And how many words or concepts do we take for granted, even though they were steeped in mistake?

For my first example, I take you all the way back to the Fiesta Bowl, where Boise State knocked off the Oklahoma Sooners.

I grew up in Idaho, and remember not having much to cheer about sports-wise. So seeing the Broncos rise to prominence was a real kick. The only thing that could have been more perfect than Boise’s gadget-play execution was the announcers’ inability to properly describe the key play.

Hook and LateralThe call is technically a “hook and lateral.” It gets its name because the first receiver runs a “hook” pattern that curls back toward the quarterback. Once he catches the ball and the defense starts to converge, that receiver “laterals” the ball back to another receiver running against the grain. Boise State ran it perfectly for the game-tying touchdown with 7 seconds remaining, and the announcers went crazy calling it a “Hook-and-Ladder” play.

The play is not that common, but when it is run well it is remembered for decades. Unfortunately, in the heat of excitement, people tend to hear the more familiar word “ladder” instead of the proper “lateral,” which describes the actual action on-field. The confusion is now so prevalent, more people know it by the name “Hook and Ladder” than otherwise. This has sparked of cottage industry of sorts, of people who claim that the second receiver is really running a “ladder” route up the sideline. Great theory, but there is no such animal.

Even the head coach who called the play, Chris Petersen, (who has not lost a game as a college head coach), refers to it as a “Hook and Ladder.” Etymology be damned. At least in the past, we would preserve that word origin, but in the Wikipedia World we live in, the Dumbness of Crowds threatens to alter the past.

Which brings me to another sticky example. Duct tape.

Guys — have you ever asked your wife to get some duct tape while she’s out, and she returned with Duck Tape?™ “Duck Tape” is a fantastic name for a brand, because it sounds enough like the product without being the actual name of the product. So you would think that a company would be proud of settling on a smart name? (There’s even a third origin story, that the rubberized backing repelled water like duck feathers.)

The “original duct tape guys” have their own site, where they claim “Duck Tape™ is really the original name, which later got bastardized into “duct tape.” The internet being what it is, and Wikipedia being what it has always been, those who like the Ducked-up folk tale can cite a “legit” source to back up their bar bets. (And strangely enough, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is more than happy to let these guys stand as a source, even though they derive a huge business boost from it.)

Have the guys at “Duck” really scored a profitable etymological hoax? They’ve even had William Safire on their side:

“The original name of the cloth-backed, waterproof adhesive product was duck tape, developed for the United States Army by the Permacel division of Johnson & Johnson to keep moisture out of ammunition cases. The earliest civilian use I can find is in an advertisement by Gimbels department store in June 1942 (antedating the O.E.D. entry by three decades — nobody but nobody beats this column), which substitutes our product for the “ladder tape” that usually holds together Venetian blinds. For $2.99, Gimbels — now defunct — would provide blinds “in cream with cream tape or in white with duck tape.”

And just where has all this Lateral Thinking gotten me? For all intensive purposes, I’ve come full-circle to ladder again. (Yes, I know it’s really “intents and purposes,” but if enough of you start agreeing with me…)

[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, Duct tape, Duck tape, Boise State, Hook and Lateral, Football, Etymology[/tags]

Share Button


  1. [...] Ike Piggot, Occam’s Razr – Lateral Thinking – a look at how the mispronunciation of words gets embedded in our language. [...]