Posted by Jay Livingston
(A personal rant. If you are not interested in language or horse racing, read no further.)
One of these things is not like the others.
- “He’s a guy with a track record that's beyond reproach.” (Nationals GM Mike Rizzo speaking about Davey Johnson as manager. USA Today, June 27)
- The decision to publish was made easier by Ritter’s proven track record as a songwriter. (Steven King reviewing a book by Josh Ritter, NYT July 3)
- Members of the House don't have a very good track record in primary campaigns. (Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight NYT blog on Michelle Bachman, June 23, a post called “Handicapping the Republican Field..”)
- That’s what the OLC is good at, and what it has a long track record of doing on war powers. (Ruth Marcus on the Office of Legal Counsel, WaPo, June 22)
- He walked a 20-kilometer race in Finland in 1:23:49.39 . . . just nine seconds off the U.S. men's 20K track record, which, as it happens, is held by his coach. (An article on racewalking, USA Today, June 24)
- That No. 1 finish extends Pixar’s perfect box-office track record - all 12 of its feature films have opened in first place. (NYT article on “Cars 2,” June 27)
- G.M.’s track record for making cars people want has not exactly been inspiring. (Joe Nocera, NYT, June 26)
In the previous post about history, I said that horseplayers use the past performance charts to handicap the horses – i.e., to assign each horse a probability of winning – and decide which horse to bet on. “Past performances” are the details of each horse’s performance in previous races. It’s a lot of information.
Here’s an excerpt of the past performances for the horses in the first three post positions in this year’s Belmont Stakes. (A tutorial on how to read past performances is here.)
After the race, horseplayers become historians. They go back to the same past performance charts to find the information that explain why the winner won (and why their horse finished out of the money).
The term “track record” also comes from horse racing. It indicates the fastest time for a given distance at a given track. The track record allows you to compare the performances of horses that have been running at different tracks.
For some reason, beginning in the late 1960s, “track record” spread far beyond the track.
The results were disastrous. Now, just about everybody except horseplayers – i.e., just about everybody – says “track record” when they mean “past performances.”
In the examples above, only #5 uses “track record” as it should be used (pardon my prescriptivism). Nate Silver (#3) even calls his blog post “Handicapping the Republican Field.” For Godssakes Nate, if you’re going call what you do “handicapping,” use the language of handicapping correctly.
It’s possible that this use of “track record” differs slightly from “past performances” and that the speaker is referring to someone’s record in some particular bailiwick, some metaphoric “track.” But in nearly every case, there is no other “track” that it could possibly be confused with. The added word “track” is totally unnecessary. Go back and read the sentences above, mentally removing the “track.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.
A simple “record” instead of “track record” retains all the meaning. And to my ear, once you remove the distraction of “track,” the sentences are clearer.
Why do people need to misuse the beautiful and precise language of horseplayers? Maybe they think that using a racing term gives their persona a dash of risk and romance, the roguish and the raffish. But inevitably, they get it wrong.