I PUT DOWN MY MUG OF COFFEE and reached into my desk drawer and dexterously pulled out my miniature samurai-sword letter-opener with the dropbear-tooth handle. After staring into space for a few seconds and mumbling, “That’s not a knife—this is a knife,” I took a few swipes in front of me with the foot-long blade, voicing the appropriate martial-arts-movie swooshing-sounds as it cut the air.
I gleefully went through my US Mail mail, then opened Outlook and undid my email mail. There was my weekly copy of eSkeptic, the newsletter of the Skeptics Society (December 23, 2015). The first article was “Dark Matter and Periodic Mass Extinctions? Not So Fast!,” in which prominent paleontologist and skeptic Donald. R. Prothero “considers a conjecture proposed to explain a supposed periodicity in mass extinctions.”
The slam dunk is the most efficient basketball shot and the phrase ‘slam dunk’ has since entered popular usage in American English, meaning a ‘sure thing.
Naturally, this piqued my interest and I was ready to read it when I saw the second piece, a jay peg Christmas card that proclaimed “Merry Kitzmas!” The card was the header image to a second piece by Prothero, but it looked downright silly!
I had never heard of Kitzmas before! Was it some new-fangled faux celebration meant to make fun of my favorite holiday?
But Kitzmas is not why I am writing this piece. But this essay was inspired by the use of a term in the Kitzmas article in a manner that set me researching the Internet to see if I had been carrying about a misinterpretation of a fairly well-known and well-used term for years and I figure if I need to look it up so might one or two faithful readers here at Neal Umphred Dot Com so look it up I did …
Mein Gott! About the only thing that could make this more boringly generic would be if it read “Season’s Greetings!” Nonetheless, it’s an effective piece of graphics: if “Kitzmas” doesn’t catch your attention, then its appearance in a post-Christmas issue of a skeptical newsletter should.
Intelligent design and the slam-dunk
Back to Prothero’s article, where the sub-title clarified things: “The 10th Anniversary of the Dover Decision and the Demise of Intelligent Design.” Aha! I dug right in and immediately had a wee problem in the opening paragraphs. Here is an abridged version of those paragraphs:
“December 20 marked the 10th anniversary of Judge John Jones’ decision in the landmark Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District case, better known as the court case that finally put intelligent design creationism on trial.
The case began in 2004 when creationists on the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board tried to sneak intelligent design creationist material into the school curriculum.
Federal Judge John E. Jones III took most of November and December to review the case and render a verdict. When it came on December 20, I remember being electrified at the news. It was a slam-dunk total victory for the side of science.”
My immediate reaction was, No—wait! If the results “electrified” him, then it was not, by definition, a slam-dunk. There are no surprises to electrify anyone in a slam-dunk victory!
Why did I think this?
And here is why I am writing this, and why it’s in my ‘Strunkandwhiten It!’ category: because it appeared to me to be a grammatical or semantic error.
Vince Carter poised for a slam dunk. One could use this photo to lodge a complaint with the NBA Commissioner of Carter using an anti-gravity device to pull this shot off. Now I don’t follow basketball, but I assume that all anti-grav devices are illegal.
Trial of the century and the slam-dunk
My response was based on my interpretation of a slam-dunk as an idiom. In basketball, a slam dunk is a 2-point shot with the player leaping high enough to dunk the ball into the basket below him. It has an extremely high rate of success. So in common usage, a slam-dunk refers to an expected outcome.
That is, the outcome is so obvious that it is as predictable as a slam-dunk being two points on the board when the ball is in the hands of Vince Carter. 1
In its entry for slam dunk, Wikipedia concurs: “The slam dunk is the most efficient basketball shot [and] the phrase ‘slam dunk’ has since entered popular usage in American English, meaning a ‘sure thing’: an action with a guaranteed outcome.”
As an example of a famous slam-dunk, I offer the case against O.J. Simpson for the 1994 murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. The murders, the investigation and arrest, and the trial elicited volumes of spoken and printed brouhaha by the media. Some media referred to it as the “trial of the century.”
Some media assured us it would be a slam-dunk for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office. 2
I paid as little attention to the affair as possible at the time, having little interest in the doings of celebrities. I assumed then as I do now that the term “trial of the century” was given to the trial due to the defendant’s status as both a major NFL Hall of Famer and as an actor who was damn near ubiquitous for years in a series of television ads for Hertz Car Rental.
I also assumed that a black man accused of murdering his white ex-wife who happened to be alone at night with another man played a little something in that title. 3
The slam-dunk assumption of some media came not from hard, conclusive evidence, but from the fact that the overwhelming majority of (white) media and its (white) audience simply assumed the (black) suspect’s guilt.
To anyone observing the events at the time, all the initial evidence was controversial by its being both circumstantial at best, or useless by having been tainted by inept police proceedings, including the scene of the crime.
Almost everyone (white) believed that the Los Angeles District Attorney had an open-and-shut case with a slam-dunk victory as its expected outcome.
But I have digressed enough here …
I did not follow the O.J. Simpson trial so I did not witness this scene on television. The next day while having coffee with friends at Paul’s Java Bean, I was told about Simpson’s unsuccessfully trying on the murderer’s gloves. I was astounded! I asked my coffee mate, “You mean the prosecution actually had him try on a glove in front of the jury and the cameras that they didn’t know didn’t fit him?!!?” That was when I started to pay a little attention, because no attorney should ever be that stupid.
Dictionary definition of a slam-dunk
I have already mentioned Wikipedia’s definition for slam dunk: “The phrase ‘slam dunk’ has since entered popular usage in American English, meaning a ‘sure thing’: an action with a guaranteed outcome.”
For Merriam-Webster, it is “something that is sure to happen or be successful.”
The Free Dictionary defines it as “something that is easy to accomplish or certain to occur.” For an example, the FD uses “a case that the prosecutor saw as a slam dunk.”
In terms of current slang, things get a little more confusing: according to the Online Slang Dictionary, slam can mean a put-down, a dissing. Which I knew, because that usage has been around for a long time. But dunk can mean a female in the act of urinating (‘peeing’ in the real world). This I was not aware of.
Consequently, almost half of the eighteen commenters on the OSD thought that the term slam-dunk was a vulgar term!
Much ado about a very very minor error
I know, I know: “electrified at a slam dunk victory” is the teensy-weensy-est of semantic errors—if it’s an error at all! Mr Prothero may be using it correctly. The point is that its use immediately caught my attention, and it did make me wonder as to real meaning of the term, and it did give me pause about my misconceptions and misunderstandings, and when posting anything supposedly factual on the Internet and there are literally hundreds of millions of sources at your fingertips there really is no reason for anyone to be incorrect about anything …
FEATURED IMAGE: The image at the top of this page is rather amazing montage of Vince Carter making a slam dunk shot. While there were better photos of Carter available showing him a bit higher above the basket than this, there were few shots this arresting. But since this featured image promises so much basketball and this article delivers so little, I used a second photo of Carter above.
1 I add a hyphen to slam-dunk when using it idiomatically. That is not the way the majority of sources on the Internet use it, but I am sticking with the dash because it connects the two words into one term.
2 In an article titled “The Slam Dunk” in The New Yorker (April 15, 1996), by John Gregory Dunne addresses prosecuting attorney Christopher Darden’s book In Contempt, which is Darden’s take on the O.J. Simpson trial. In his opening paragraph, Dunne notes, “On the face of it, the case against Simpson was what L.A. prosecutors like to call a ‘slam dunk.’ ” And that’s all the research that I am spending on this footnote!
3 At first, the relationship between Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman was mixed up in an almost Oswaldian manner. Initially, he was merely a lackey doing his employer a favor by returning a pair of sunglasses to Ms. Brown. At 11:00 PM. Like Lee Harvey, the story couldn’t have been much farther from the truth: in the weeks prior to the murders, Colman had developed a close enough relationship with Brown that she lent him her Ferrari.
Their knowing each other wasn’t a secret: both Brown and Goldman acknowledged to friends a relationship that was ‘platonic.’ And I have known people, wealthy and not so wealthy, who were extremely generous with their belongings with new ‘friends.’
On the other hand, Goldman was a tall, handsome man who had done some modeling and acting. He was also an ambitious man, with plans to open his own restaurant. Ms Brown was ‘playing the field’ at the time, so the possibility of a more intimate relationship between the two is easily conceived, but completely overlooked by the L.A. police and countless journalists and investigators for a rather long time.