Rare is the case where you see the world through the lens of “us.” It’s a lot more common to see it as a case of “us” and “them.”
Much of the time, the line of separation is one where one side speaks a different language than the other. This is even true when you’re in a society where most of us actually speak the same tongue. The Southern drawl, the Yankee brough. Y’all vs. youse. City slickers and country folk.
We’re not technically divided into tribes in this country, but we tend to get tribal in other ways. This is especially true among the physically active.
I’ll bring you a few case studies, each distinct, and possessing their own linguistic peculiarities.
Sometimes the verbiage is the more of a currency of the land. It separates the beginners from the veterans. This would be the case with runners.
Running is not really a skill sport, at least not in the way of other sports or activities. Everyone more or less learns how to run shortly after learning to walk.
But becoming a more serious runner means navigating the training methods and pitfalls of being able to run far. People who have been around the block a time or ten (figuratively speaking) will know all about tempo runs, speed work and fartleks (which sound funny for obvious reasons, but aren’t much fun in reality).
We tend to pay attention to things like splits when we compete, and we’re pretty good with acronyms, too. PRs and PBs (synonyms to boot!) are way better than a DNS or a DNF.
And try explaining a chip time to someone who has not run a race. It’s just easier to talk about amongst those who have actually donned said chip which measures your actual time in competition.
So to a small degree, runners enjoy a bit of an insider’s thing when it comes to talking with other runners. I see it as a mild dialect of the English language, easily learned but just foreign enough to those outside the tribe as to make them feel excluded, or at least a little different.
If the runner dialect is somewhat subtle, it’s anything but that for climbers.
I find climbers to be a pretty great bunch. Open-minded and chill. Mostly tolerant of newbs (this term actually crosses over into a lot of areas when describing people who are new to a particular activity, and is sometimes synonymous with “gapers” in ski lingo). But climbers have their own language within our language.
I lean more toward the newb category for climbing than running, but I know some of the parlance. Generally speaking, I know what it means to send a 5.7 or a V4 (though I can’t tell you what exactly qualifies as a V4), and I know for certain you DO NOT want to take a whipper while leading a 5-anything. If that all sounds Greek to you, you’re not a climber. And that’s OK with them. They figure you’ll learn in time, and are cool with it if you don’t. Well, mostly.
Climber-speak is actually somewhat mongrel in nature. It’s part English, part stoner, and part French. Yes, French. The French pioneered much of modern climbing and mountaineering, so many climbing terms (particularly when it comes to real alpinism) comes from the French language.
Words like couloir (snow gully), glissade (sliding on your butt down a snow slope) and serac (a tower of ice and snow) are all French mountaineering terms used by English-speaking mountaineers as freely as one might say “rope” or “harness.”
Climbing slang can be pretty funny, sometimes unintentionally. “Woodie” and “tea-bagging” definitely have different connotations among climbers than they do among the rest of you who currently have your minds in the gutter.
Like I said, climbers are a pretty open bunch. They’re a set-apart tribe, to be sure, but are as welcoming as any clan might wish to be. They’ll be happy to show you the ropes on a juggy route so you can start easy, before you start trying to tackle more difficult, slabby crack climbs. By the time you get to that point, you’ll actually know what all that jibberish means.
Still other tribes, while possessing much smaller vernaculars, are quite proud of their set-apartness. Right now, I’m thinking of Crossfitters.
Since this phenomenon is relatively new, the terminology is not widely known to those outside the tribe. I’d say there’s a good chance you don’t know what a WOD is, why you’d want to go to the box, or who the hell Uncle Rhabdo is. When you see these terms in social media (along with lots of talk about burpees and AMRAP), it’s usually with a hashtag of #getafterit. That’s sort of a secret code for other Crossfitters that lets them know that whatever was just posted is worth getting lathered up about.
It should be worth noting that there are differences between the nature of the language of Crossfit and that of climbers and runners. Whereas the latter two developed organically, the Crossfit dialect is much more manufactured, all part of an effort to make participants feel like part of the group, grafted into a super-motivated clan of clean-and-jerking, squat-thrusting, mega-kipping acolytes.
The result is that once you get in the group, you get drawn in by the intensity, camaraderie and competitiveness that is built in to Crossfit. After you get the lingo down (it’s not extensive, so this happens quickly), they’ve got their hooks in you for good, or at least until you blow out your shoulder doing too many muscle-ups for time.
I’m not completely sure what to conclude from all of this. Humans have shown a natural tendency to cling to those who are like ourselves and divide ourselves from those who are different. Habits and activities are part of that dividing line, and so is language. There are a lot of reasons why we do this, not least of which is to not only cleave ourselves from the larger pack, but to elevate above it.
If you don’t believe me, count the number of “13.1” and “26.2” stickers you see parked at the next running event. Or listen to climbers gripe about the lameness of “ball sports.” And don’t even try to get in a conversation with a Crossfitter that might question how effective their workouts might be. You’re begging for an impassioned talking-to.
But rather than lament the divisions, I’m trying more to understand them. There are at least elements of these and more in which I’ve dipped my toes. Learning the language of these groups brings understanding. And with understanding, enlightenment.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to plan on how I’m going to set a PR sending that 5.7, hoping Uncle Rhabdo doesn’t give me a bad case of Elvis leg.
On Twitter @RMHigh7088