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Unbelievable... Really?

In the midst of our self-isolation, I have been watching reruns of most any sport I can find on cable.  I'm desperate. And, in listening to the announcers, I have discovered the most overused word in all of sports and perhaps in the English lexicon: "Unbelievable!"

Watch and listen, and you will hear: That throw was "unbelievable." His catch was "unbelievable." That shot was "unbelievable." That ball was "unbelievably" close to the line. That was an "unbelievable" ricochet off the bocci ball. (yes, I watched some of that too before I dosed off.) I'm desperate.

Are all those throws, catches, shots, and ricochets really "unbelievable?" Could the announcers simply have more accurately described each as "nice" throw, "good" catch, "fine" shot, "helpful" ricochet, or just "close" call?

Maybe, they don't know what "unbelievable" actually means.  Kind of like the kidnapper in The Princess Bride who didn't seem to know what "inconceivable " meant.  "Unbelievable" actually means "not able to be believed." Something so unusual and so improbable that it defies belief.

I heard an announcer describe a Tiger Woods putt. Woods had about a 30-foot sightly downhill putt that broke a bit left over a mild ridge. He sank the putt. The announcer could not contain his enthusiasm.  "That putt was unbelievable! He had an unbelievable downhill, slightly left-breaking lie over an unbelievable ridge. And unbelievably, the ball dropped squarely in the center of the hole. Unbelievable!"

No. Woods has make a career of sinking putts like that. He has done it so often in so many circumstances that we now expect every putt of his to go in and are a tad surprised if he actually misses one.  Couldn't the announcer simple have noted, "Nice roll for another birdie," and gone on to the next hole?

Save "unbelievable" for something that truly is so iconic, so spectacular and so memorable that it actually is "unbelievable." 

For example, there was Woods' shot at the par 3, 16th hole of the 2005 Masters--perhaps the most iconic shot in golf history. He pitched his second shot from the rough, landed it above the hole so that it could roll back down the slight hill, then watched as the ball hung on the edge of the cup, the swish on the ball almost smiling as it seemed to defy gravity, before falling in. Birdie. A shot so improbable and surprising that it even defied Woods' prodigious talents with a golf club.  That shot deserved to be called "unbelievable."

But what else does?

I decided to test the word at home. The other night, we had hamburgers for dinner. I told my wife, Judy, "The way you flipped that hamburger was unbelievable."  She looked puzzled. "You have such unbelievable flex in your wrist." "What?" she said. "I have never seen such unbelievable speed and accuracy in burger-flipping." She told me to get out of the kitchen. I did.

Couldn't announcers think of a range of synonyms to more accurately describe the reality of a situation?  They do afterall have a lot of choices that they could apply.  

Words like useful, effective, timely, and workmanlike are available at one level of accomplishment.  Or how about outstanding, impressive, and excellent for a higher level? And then there are other descriptors for more unexpected moments like stupendous, awesome, and amazing. Then, for those more exceptional moments, there are phrases like "circus" catch, or "answered-prayer" shot or "Houdini-like" move.  So much to choose from given the actual quality of the throw, catch, hit, run, shot, block. move, or drive at the actual moment. Instead, we get "unbelievable."

The English language is so rich, multi-layered, varied and beautiful.  That is, there are a lot of ways to say something other than "unbelievable."

Consider literature. Take Shakespeare.

Hamlet wonders, "To be or not to be: that is the question."  Instead he could have lamented: "Oh, when will I stop this unbelievable dilly dallying? I have such an unbelievable decision to make."

Or Lady Macbeth, instead of crying, "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!" could have simply said, "This unbelievable spot is so unbelievable to try to clean."

Or Portia reflecting, "The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven on the place beneath."  She could have said, "Mercy is just so unbelievable. It's like unbelievable rain falling on us."

Consider classic lines from movies.

Asked for the truth, Colonel Jessup yells: "You can't handle the truth!"  Just think if he had said, "The truth is unbelievable. You just don't know how unbelievable."

Or the Don, warning, "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."  Instead, consider, "I'll make him an unbelievable offer. He can't turn down something so unbelievable."

Or Detective Harry Callahan daring: "Go ahead. Make my day."  He could have noted: "You could make my day so unbelievable for me."

There are those rare, unprecedented, extraordinary events and circumstances, however, when the word is not only appropriate but necessary. 


--Nurses and doctors caring for COVID-19 patients at the risk of their own health and lives.

--First responders ignoring the danger of infection to themselves as they rescue and transport virus-infected people to hospitals and clinics.

--And others, like grocery store personnel in masks and gloves, some behind plastic shields, working to provide you and me with some sense of what normal used to be like.

Now that's unbelievable!

Good Health and Good Luck


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