In the lingering light of last week’s game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers, in which the former beat the latter after a controversial call of “simultaneous possession,” I thought it might be fun to examine the roots of “referee.”
If you happen to hide in a social-media cave, and missed the mysterious mayhem that resulted in an end zone scrum and a 14-12 win for the Seahawks, it was the referees and their decisions that were the real story of the night.
But to be a “referee” has always involved being caught in the middle. The word’s etymology has legal overtones, entering into our English lexicon in the middle of the 16th century as “a person to whom any matter or question in dispute is referred for decision,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
The noun comes from the verb “refer,” which the OED says came to our tongue in the 14th century from the Anglo-Norman “referer,” from the French “référer,” meaning “to put in connection with” or “submit or refer something to someone for a decision.” The French word, in its turn, comes from the Latin “referre,” which conveys a number of ideas, including, “to have recourse,” “to trace back,” “to restore,” “to write down,” or “to enter in one’s accounts.” The Latin root is “ferre,” meaning “to bear,” or “carry.”
The notion is that when two parties are in dispute, they can “refer” their issue to some kind of authority, which can then make the judgment necessary to restore peace, rectify debts, or enforce justice.
In sports, where constant conflict marks much of what happens on the field (and off it, sometimes), trusted authorities are very much needed to maintain order and to ensure that a fair match is played.
The OED identifies “referee” as being first used in reference to sport as a verb in the late 1820s, and as a noun (i.e. “to referee”) by the end of that same century. The OED also notes that referees can be distinguished from umpires in most sports in that the former are often out on the pitch, so to speak, and active in enforcing the rules of the game up close (as with football), while the latter may sit more on the sidelines and observe, intervening from a more stationary vantage point (as with tennis or baseball).
In both cases, their roles are crucial. That’s why we get upset if we perceive them as failing in their capacity to make swift, sure and competent calls. And that’s why we’re so relieved when, as in the case of U.S. football, we hear that the regular referees will be returning to the season. Finally, someone can “carry” the weight of the arbitrating action and “refer” well.
If you have any word ideas or questions for me, please send them along to firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, take care!
Reach columnist Will Mari at email@example.com. Twitter: @willthewordguy
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