In Sport, What is, Words

Referee brandishing a red card

You might not have noticed but there are certain rules I try to apply when I write Word of the Week. One is never to pretend to know about Greek literature, unless you can make it really convincing. The other is not to write about words that other people are writing about. It’s all about differentiation. If Susie Dent zigs, I zag, which is how I’ve managed to prevent her from intruding on my career and stealing my limelight.

This week, it was brought to my attention by my friend Sarah (you’ll notice Susie Dent never mentions her friends) that the Cambridge Dictionary – ‘the most popular dictionary and thesaurus for learners of English’, it says here, as opposed to the Oxford dictionaries that Susie Dent worked on – had announced its Word of the Year. Putting aside my initial irritation that they’d blatantly nicked my concept, I discovered that the Word of the Year was homer.

Hands up everyone who immediately thought of Homer Simpson. And hands up everyone who thought of the Greek author of The Odyssey and The Iliadfame. Hmm, kind of divides the room, doesn’t it?

Back in May it divided the planet when it was the answer to Wordle. Wordle, for those of you who’ve been lost in the jungle for the last two years, trying to escape Matt Hancock (he’s coming for you), is an American word game published daily by the New York Times, where you have six goes to guess a five-letter word, with colour codes for letters you guess correctly. It’s a bit like Mastermind. Mastermind is a box game where you have to guess… never mind.

Being an American word game, Wordle has the added twist of spelling certain words wrongly – color, honor, that sort of thing – which irritates the British, as is NYT editorial policy.

Anyway, millions of people failed to guess Homer, lost their winning streaks and threatened to send a destroyer up the Hudson, not because the word was spelt wrongly but because, they said, it isn’t a valid word at all. “Unfair!” they cried. “It’s a name, not a word!” they hollered. “It’s a cartoon character!” they boomed. “It’s actually a Greek author,” one or two of them murmured.

“Not at all,” said the NYT. “Homer is slang for a home run in baseball.” For British Wordlers, that went down like a crate of tea in Boston Harbour. “Shame! American slang terms now! Call yourself a respectable puzzle? It’s an outrage!”

But, in Wordle’s defence, it’s not just American sport that uses the term ‘homer’. In my years of playing football in the giddy heights of the Amateur Football Alliance, I heard it just about every week. “Never mind, lads, the ref’s a homer.” It meant the ref was biased towards the home side, a scurrilous accusation designed to avert attention from the fact that the away side were losing 4-0 because they’d all been in the pub the night before and a doner kebab is not the ideally dietary prep for high level sport.

The first time I heard the word used on the football field was years ago, before Homer Simpson was a twinkle in Matt Groening’s eye. Being the son of an English teacher (does Susie Dent ever mention her dad?), who had tried to instil some literary enthusiasm in me from a young age, I was familiar with The Odyssey and naturally assumed my teammates meant the ref was a poet with a keen interest in Greek mythology. It was only after I got booked for questioning his concept of the Underworld that I realised my mistake.

Years later, when I was trying to enthuse my own son in reading (does Susie Dent even have a son?*), I remembered my Dad reading The Odyssey to me and how it had been full of monsters and witches and thrills and spills, like Julia Donaldson only relatable and exciting. I went to the library but they didn’t have it. They did have the prequel, though, The Iliad, so I thought I’d give that a go and started reading it to my son at bed time. He hasn’t read a book since.

*No, she doesn’t

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