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Believing the 'unbelievable'

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 18, 2001


UNBELIEVABLE: too improbable for belief. -- Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary

* * *

It's the most misused word in the English language. A bromide that endlessly/wrongfully surfaces on the street, in locker rooms and from media.

On a dozen cable TV channels most any NBA night, you might hear a Vince Carter dunk described as "unbelievable." Nah. Believe it, you talking heads.

Even if Carter does a 360 reverse with eyes shut, he is a talent who constantly flies, contorts and crams basketballs through hoops. So, not unbelievable. Danny DeVito dunking, now that would be unbelievable.

Most people, in using unbelievable, should settle for "amazing" or "fantastic" or "fabulous." It was not unbelievable to see Trent Dilfer execute a 96-yard touchdown pass. Unlikely, yes. Remarkable, sure. Stunning, absolutely.

It's a communications crutch, a stretch in search of the ultimate boom. Prove it for yourself. Join me in noticing every time "unbelievable" is heard in the next 10 days, until Super Bowl XXXV is history. Let the misplaced unbelievables clang on ears like a ball bearing striking tin.

Tiger Woods hitting a 410-yard drive is dazzling, eye-catching and memorable but not at all unbelievable, the nuclear golfer having repeatedly surpassed 350. Me achieving a 410-yarder would be unbelievable, unless struck downwind on I-275.

I don't mean this as an all-out war on cliches, although that would be worthy combat. Many of us slip with the occasional "backs against the wall" or "there's no tomorrow" or "crunch time." Hackologists can't resist saying teams "shuffle off" to Buffalo.

There is no more horribly overused but infrequently merited term than "great." Hank Aaron was great; Fred McGriff is merely good. San Francisco is a great city, but don't apply the adjective to Newark.

Exaggeration is epidemic. But even overcooked terms are, in reality, somebody's opinion. If a cat thinks Ed McMahon is a great talent, that is an individual's privilege, but unbelievable is almost always erroneously applied.

It's not just me.

"Over the past generation, there has unquestionably been a decline in rhetorical skills among commentators, most notably in sports," said Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute and renowned grammarian.

"It's such a departure from times when America was hearing opinions on games from Heywood Hale Broun, Red Barber, Jim McKay, Jack Whitaker and even Howard Cosell.

"None of them were accomplished athletes who later joined the media, which is now so commonplace. Lately we have substituted X's and O's intelligence and technical proficiency for a richer texture of announcing.

"With that package has come a rush of hyperbole and catch phrases, which have been widely picked up by many commentators who are not from the jock category.

"Some things are merely overstated, standards being lowered by many who use 'great' or 'star,' or the further overblown 'superstar.' But those are opinions, even if perhaps misguided, but the word 'unbelievable' almost always means a total misuse.

"All that said, we still have commentators, in print and electronic media, who are exceptional pursuers of optimum language. 'Boomer' (Chris Berman) has an obvious interest in proper language and originality.

"Bob Costas brings a love of language. We should encourage many other voices to more deeply study those who work at speaking correctly, with less emulating of inadequate jock grammar."

Last weekend I heard a renowned TV fellow refer to Baltimore's defense as unbelievable. How so? All those bullish Ravens are physically qualified and quite adept at making tackles, prohibiting pass completions and being scarce with point allowances.

It would be unbelievable if, say, Richard Simmons became an NFL linebacker. Unbelievable if Warren Sapp rode in the Kentucky Derby. Unbelievable if Don Ho came here from Hawaii by swimming.

See what I mean?

Shaquille O'Neal missing 10 consecutive free throws is not unbelievable, but Charles Manson being elected president of the United States would be unbelievable.

Only yesterday I heard a caller to a radio show say it is unbelievable that Dilfer and Kerry Collins, both bounce-backs from pro football's basement floor, will be opposing Super Bowl quarterbacks. Nyet! Unlikely, yo. Unpredictable, natch. What would be unbelievable would be a QB matchup featuring Tonya Harding against Michael Jackson.

Is it asking too much, when unbelievable is used, to expect a situation that is, as Webster's states, "too improbable for belief."

If it's a higher-than-high-C being sung by Luciano Pavarotti, rattling ear drums in the back row, that is not unbelievable. He's good at that, old L.P. What would be unbelievable is Yogi Berra doing a Met duet with Roseanne.

Bruising of the term ... it's almost unbelievable.

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