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The word

Getting 'untracked'

The surprisingly deep history of a bit of jock-talk

By Jan Freeman
May 23, 2010

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IN THE FIRST playoff game against the Celtics last Sunday, the Orlando Magic “finally got untracked” only in the last quarter, the Globe’s Frank Dell’Apa wrote.

That untracked is standard usage in sports reporting, but it still puzzles readers who look at it closely. Tom Fitzpatrick of Groton recently e-mailed to suggest that it might be a corruption of the more sensible get on track: “After all, a train can’t go anywhere unless it’s on the track, and if it were to get ‘untracked’ it would crash.”

An excellent theory, and the one I embraced a decade ago, when a reader first pointed out the get untracked usage. It obviously wasn’t related to “untracked wilderness,” but to the later mechanical senses of track. But when wheels or radar systems track properly, it’s a good thing. Why would an athlete want to get untracked?

Several readers offered rationales for the usage: The image reminded one of breaking free of a deeply rutted dirt road. Others suggested untracked implied “jumping the tracks” to surprise opponents. Or was a slump like being on a runaway train that has to be derailed? Globe sportswriter John Powers dismissed those guesses: “Just jockspeak,” he said.

Like Fitzpatrick, I leaned toward the simplest explanation: Untracked was probably what linguists playfully call an eggcorn — an unwitting modification of on track that changed that plodding expression into one that suggested breaking free.

But 10 years later, the status of untracked has changed. It’s no longer a stealth usage; several standard dictionaries (though not the Oxford English Dictionary) now include it. The New Oxford American gives it as the phrase — get untracked — and defines it as “get into one’s stride or find good form.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate dates it to 1939. And a wealth of online sources have accumulated since those early attempts to trace untracked to its roots. Who knew what might lie deep in the archives?

Asked to search for get untracked — the usual phrasing nowadays, and a term that avoids calling up thousands of citations for untracked deserts, moorlands, and snows — Google News whisked me back to September 1927. There was Jack Dempsey himself, in a widely syndicated first-person essay, musing on his upcoming rematch with Gene Tunney. “I either get away to a whirl-wind start...or I can’t get untracked for a long while,” the ex-heavyweight champ explained.

In a 1933 AP report, lightweight Tony Canzoneri complained of the same problem: “I felt strong all the way, but toward the last I couldn’t seem to get untracked.” And in 1939, welterweight Davey Day confessed, “I don’t get untracked till around the sixth or seventh round.”

In the following decades, get untracked crossed over to football and track, then to golf and baseball and tennis. By the 1970s it could be found in the odd music review, describing performers who got (or failed to get) untracked, though it remained predominantly a sports expression.

But wait, there’s more. Boxing may have launched the career of the phrase get untracked, but that wasn’t the earliest version of the sportswriters’ untrack. Further digging unearthed examples of the verb as early as the 1890s, in regular use at — where else? — the racetrack. “Before Carr had untracked his mind Dungarven had beaten him,” reported the Chicago Tribune. “The latter [horse] did not seem able to untrack himself in the heavy going,” said The New York Times.

This untracked might well have been confusing to some 19th-century readers, since the word was also used in the horse world to mean “never raced.” Untracked also shows up now and then with the meaning “fell to pieces,” the opposite of its standard sports sense. In 1990, for instance, a New York Times racing item reported that “the sloppy track apparently untracked the favorites.”

But the positive untracked seems to have prospered modestly, not making a splash, for more than a century before we began to notice its oddity. Then came a mild attack of the Recency Illusion — the notion, named by linguist Arnold Zwicky, that a usage new to you must be new to the language.

After 120 years, though, I think we can agree that the usage is standard. And the fact that it may have come from the racetrack may be some consolation to readers baffled by the modern usage. But we still don’t know what image (if any) the coiners had in mind. A number of early examples come in race-day reports that involve muddy tracks; could untracking refer to a horse’s hitting its stride despite the heavy going?

Or maybe untracked is meant to contrast the racetrack with railroad tracks. For a train or streetcar, getting untracked is a disaster. But in a horse race — where “tracking” another horse means following it — the only way to win is to “untrack” and overtake the leaders.

But I wouldn’t put big money on either of these theories. After all, nobody ever said idioms had to make sense.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).