Ask Language Log: "field goal"

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Annie Wagner asks:

I have a timely question. Which came first–the phrase "field goal" as used in basketball or as used in football? My usual sources are not being helpful.

The OED gives the gloss "esp. N. Amer. and Austral., (a) in Football, a goal scored from the field of play; (b) in Basketball, a goal scored while the ball is in play; (c) in other games". The citations give the nod to football by four years, but both examples look easy to antedate:

1902 Chicago Record-Herald 28 Sept. 2/3 A try for a field goal was made, but..the kick was easily blocked. 1906 Off. Bk. Rules Govt. Game of Basketball 1906-1907 13 Flint..has tallied the most field goals.

And indeed, a search in the NYT's online archives produces "JOHNS HOPKINS BADLY BEATEN.; ITS FOOT-BALL TEAM DEFEATED BY THE PENNSYLVANIA UNIVERSITY BOYS", Nov. 11, 1883:

I seriously doubt this is the earliest football-related use. But since James Naismith organized the first basketball game on January 20, 1892 (in the gym at the YMCA in Springfield MA), a bit more than eight years after the date of this story, I think we can take football's priority to be demonstrated.

This article raising another question: what was the difference between a "touchdown goal", apparently worth 6 points then as now, and a "touchdown", apparently worth just 2? Was plain touchdown the term for what's now called a touchback (which now awards no points to anyone), or was it the equivalent of today's "point-after-touchdown", or what?

[There is also either a typographical error or a small problem of arithmetic — after telling us that field goals counted for 2 points each, the reporter includes "one field goal, 5" in the final tally. ]


  1. Peter Jackson said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 9:49 am

    The reference to 'rugby' in the NYT piece gives a hint about 'touchdown goal'; in my UK youth a goal in rugby was a converted try, where the conversion kick after the initial touchdown for the try was successful. I'd suppose that the 'touchdown goal' is analogous to that.

  2. Chad Nilep said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 10:06 am

    Given that it is worth two points, and given the reference to "revised Rugby rules," I would guess that "touch downs" relate to "conversions," often called "point after touch down" in contemporary American football. That is: kicking the ball in to the goal after having run it in for six points.

  3. mollymooly said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 10:10 am

    The "goal from touchdown" is what is now the "point after touchdown". The "touchdown" is still the "touchdown". Thus, originally, the kick was worth more than the touchdown, as also formerly in rugby.

    In rugby, the modern score names still reflect this: the "try" [~touchdown] was worth nothing but an opportunity to kick a goal, i.e "convert" the try to a "goal". Today, a try is worth 5 points, a "conversion" 2 points. A "converted try" is AFAIK still called a "goal" de jure, though never de facto.

  4. language hat said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 10:12 am

    Goodness, is there really no readily available account of the development of football terminology and practice? What a contrast with baseball, where any reasonably informed fan can give you a rundown of the basic changes since the 1840s! I guess football is all about the moment (and the point spread).

  5. language hat said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    Ah, I see I commented too soon; mollymooly knows all.

  6. Bobbie said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 11:30 am

    The first (recognized) collegiate football game was played in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton at New Brunswick, New Jersey. Using rules derived from rugby (and/ or from a more soccer-like game), I would assume that the terminology of goals and touchdowns existed when that game was played.

  7. Peter Jackson said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    Mollymooly is not quite correct about rugby scoring, in modern times at least. When I first started watching it about 40 years ago, a try was worth three points, a conversion added two further points to that to make a five-point goal, and a penalty kick (the equivalent of a field goal in the US) was worth three points. A drop kick also scored three points, but let's not go any deeper into that…

    As time has gone by, the try has been bumped up in value to discourage excessive kicking and bring about more positive play. Rugby now has five points for a try, two for a conversion, three for a penalty and three for a drop goal.

    What the scoring was at the origins of the game, I have no idea. I may be old, but…

  8. Scazon said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

    The 2-point touchdown might indeed be a touchback; in Canadian football (many of the rules of which predate those of American football) a touchback scores 1 point for the kicking side; the so-called "rouge" or "single". (Actually, it's a bit more complicated than that, but seeing as this is Language not Football Log I'll spare the details.)

  9. Cameron said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

    mollymooly pretty much has the scoop above. There are many football codes (Association Football a.k.a "Soccer", Rugby Union, Rugby League, Australian Rules, Irish Football, American Football, Canadian Football, etc.) And they all have differing terminologies, reflecting when they were standardized and how the rules have evolved since. Rugby was standardized early, and some of its vocabulary is very conservative and reflects the rules at the time of standardization in the 1870s (the terminology may in fact reflect usage at Rugby school going back many decades before that). American Football was at first much like rugby, but its rules changed much more rapidly with a huge mutation occurring in the early 20th century (the introduction of the forward pass) and its vocabulary hasn't retained the ghosts of the old rules.

  10. Ian Preston said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

    The 1862 rules of rugby football define touch downs but there is no use of the term field goal. Scoring a field goal is referred to there as dropping a goal. The 1845 laws use neither term.

  11. Audrey said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

    I have an "Ask Language Log" question (and I can't find an e-mail address to send it to)! On the radio yesterday, I heard a story about Timothy Geithner's new plan for investors to purchase toxic assets. In the course of a story the plan was called both a "road map" and a "blueprint," which to me sound like very different things—one is something you make after you build roads, to show and direct people through the completed project, while the other is something you make before you build a building to demonstrate how the building will be made and how it will look—and neither of them really describes what the plan is: a "plan."

    Do the Language Log gurus have any insight on the use of these terms by politicians or for political maneuverings?

  12. Cameron said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

    The famous Rutgers/Princeton games in 1869 used Rutgers's Rules for the game at Rutgers, and Princeton's rules for the corresponding game at Princeton. Both were based on the rules set forth by the Football Association in England, and hence did not allow carrying or throwing the ball (i.e. both those schools played a game more like Soccer than Rugby.)

    Rugby Union began after several clubs that wanted to play the carrying-game quit the Football Association and formed the Rugby Union in 1871.

  13. Mr Punch said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

    American intercollegiate football began in 1869 with "soccer" rules, and this form persisted for some years in the Middle Atlantic states. Rugby (in its then-current version) was introduced to the US in 1874 (McGill-Harvard) and caught on in New England. In 1876 Princeton and other Middle Atlantic schools, recognizing the superiority of the Rugby-based rules, agreed to switch. (There was a meeting at Springfield, Mass., 11/23/76, where the decision was ratified.) American football continued to be viewed as a version of Rugby even after 1905-06, when new rules such as the forward pass were adopted.

    The Rugby Union rules from which American (and Canadian and Australian) football developed date from 1871.

  14. Terry Collmann said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

    "recognizing the superiority of the Rugby-based rules …"

    unlike almost everywhere else in the world, eh?

    Another case of everybody out of step except America?

  15. rone said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

    When did it go from foot-ball and touch-downs to football and touchdowns?

  16. mollymooly said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

    Mollymooly is not quite correct about rugby scoring, in modern times at least.

    I was correct about scoring, but not about naming. Here's the current rules (or "Laws" if you must): the converted try is no longer called a "goal". This "Scoring through the ages" website suggests "goal from a try" was the official name till 1979, but I've seen "goal" used, even today: Garnock 13pts Hillhead Jordanhill 25pts says "the ‘Hills’ won by two goals, one try and two penalty goals to two tries and one penalty goal."

  17. Vincent Daly said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

    It may be worth noting that the try in rugby is scored (as of 40 years ago anyway) when the ball is actually touched down, to the ground, behind the goal line. Crossing the plane in possession of the ball is not enough, as it is in US football. It can happen that the ballcarrier crosses the plane but is pushed out of the end zone (probably not the right term) before being able to score.

    (Not language related but: the conversion kick takes place straight back from the point of touchdown, so ideally you would want to touch the ball down between the goal posts. Touch it down near the sidelines and the kicker will have to back up considerably to get a decent angle.)

  18. mgh said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

    John McPhee had a New Yorker article recently on lacrosse, which he opened by showing how much of the language and tradition of football, soccer, hockey, basketball, etc trace back to origins in lacrosse.

    So, I was sure "field goal" must have originated in lacrosse as well — but, near as I can tell, that's not the case at all!

  19. Bloix said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

    "Field goals" are scored in field hockey, an older game than both football and basketball – but I wouldn't know when the term came into use there. There are also "field goals" in modern women's lacrosse – but not in the men's game, which has only "goals" – but again, I don't know how old the usage is. It wouldn't be surprising, though, to find that "field goal" predates both football and basketball, and there's no reason to think that it moved from one to the other. (Naismith played field hockey, lacrosse, rugby, and early football.)

  20. Bloix said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

    mgh – you beat me by a hair!

  21. John Cowan said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

    Terry Collman: the Canucks and Ozzies still love their Queen (most of 'em, anyway), but they do not believe in playing football like a bunch of thalidomide babies.

  22. Richard Hershberger said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

    To follow up on the previous comments about the early history of American football, the game derives from Rugby, but acquired its distinctive characteristics in the early 1880s. The rules for the scrummage were changed. Originally the ball went into the middle between the two teams in such a way (in theory, at least) that either side had an equal chance at gaining possession. As the scrum was interpreted in the U.S. this tended to result in the two teams deadlocked with the ball between them indefinitely. The scrum was changed (perhaps through tacitly-accepted cheating, later formally allowed) so that the team which had previously had the ball could tip it back to one of its own players. This was the origin of the scrimmage, with the center (who originally hiked the ball with his foot) and the quarterback. It also resulted in set-piece plays, which is still a defining characteristic of the American version. The unanticipated side effect was that the team on offense played very conservatively, rather than risking losing possession. So another change was made requiring the team to advance the ball or (originally) lose yardage: the origin of the modern system of downs (though the distance and number of downs and penalty has varied.) Finally, there was offensive blocking (probably once again introduced through accepted cheating) in which players on the offensive team can block defenders ahead of the ball carrier. The forward pass came in the early 20th century, but the rules changes of the early 1880s defined American football as a different code from Rugby football.

    For anyone interested in a lovingly detailed record of early games, see "Early American & Canadian 'Football': Beginnings through 1883-84" by Melvin I. Smith.

    Smith places American football as distinct from Rugby with the 1882/1883 season. The changes didn't happen all at once, so this is somewhat arbitrary. That was the first year of the downs rule. Other writers have placed the split as early as 1880 and as late as 1883. The Johns Hopkins-U. of Penn. game described in the Times was under these rules, but some schools played under the older Rugby rules for some years. The Times reference to "the revised Rugby rules" reflects this transitional status. These rules were clearly different from the old Rugby rules, but it was not quite considered a separate game yet.

    As for why the eastern schools switched from soccer-style to Rugby-style football, thank (or blame) Harvard. Most of the schools favored soccer-style, but Harvard was adamant for Rugby-style. Harvard being Harvard, it got its way. For most of the later innovations, thank Yale. Yale is also responsible for the width of the field. There was a conference held at Yale in which they seriously considered widening the field to open up play. While the discussion was underway (so the story goes) someone went down to the brand-new, very expensive football stadium Yale had just constructed; he took a tape measure to the stadium, returned to the conference, and announced that they couldn't widen the field. The rest is history. Or at least that is the story. I cannot confirm or refute its truthfulness, but it certainly is truthy.

  23. boynamedsue said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

    mgh, not being a new yorker subscriber, I couldn't access the Lacrosse story.

    However, given that the ancestor of Football and Rugby was first codified in 1848 in Cambridge, it seems unlikely that a then uncodified game predominantly played in French Canada woud have had too much of an influence on the vocabulary of this proto-football.

    At the time football (soccer) and Rugby definitively split in 1871, they clearly already had much common vocabulary, as evidenced by their common terminology (penalty, goal, free-kick, off-side, forward, back, half-back). This is unlikely to have come from Lacrosse, which had only been codified 5 years earlier. Is the influence not more likely to have gone the other way?

  24. dr pepper said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

    Hmm, i would have thought that the way rugby players find themselves in a scrum almost immediately would make fighting through to enough clearance for a kick a difficult feat and therefor a kick should count more.

  25. Andrew said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 8:45 pm

    When I was young, a try in Rugby was worth three points, and I was told that the term derived from 'tri', mneaing 'three'. I don't think I ever wholly believed this. I am interested to hear that originally it was worth no points, just a chance to kick at goal.

  26. Peter Jackson said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

    Mollymooly: No offence meant – I realised after posting that I might have misunderstood your original post a bit; sorry about that.

    Thanks for the extra information, too. I didn't want to get into the stuff about physically touching the ball down and the lateral location of the conversion kick, just as I didn't want to explain drop goals…

    Can we do cricket next?

  27. Philip Spaelti said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

    I don't know anything about scoring rugby or football, but I couldn't help noticing that the writer of the 1883 article, after carefully explaining that field goals are worth 2 points, goes on to total the score counting the (one) field goal as 5 points. Must be very difficult to figure out who's winning in this sport…

  28. Rob de Santos said,

    March 27, 2009 @ 11:06 pm

    @Mr. Punch:

    Australian football has a unique pedigree and did not directly evolve from rugby but was more likely evolved from Gaelic football and the aboriginal game Marn Grook. The exact history is widely disputed by historians though.

  29. Tim said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 12:34 am

    My guess from the article is that the 5 is correct and the 2 is the typo, since the 5 allows the score to total 30.

    I'm also guessing that a "touch-down" is like today's touchdowns (i.e. carrying the ball into the endzone), and that a "goal from touch-downs" is like a touchdown with the extra point (except that, in this case, it would an extra four points).

  30. Andrew said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 1:50 am

    The "touchdown" refers to exactly that: Putting the ball on the ground. This was the requirement to score a "touchdown," and still is the requirement in rugby for a try— crossing the goal line isn't enough. Goals were more valuable than touchdowns and tries for a long time, presumably until they realized that the score that all the effort and (given the times) manliness were put into should earn the most points.

    I have found in the NYT archives an article from Jan 27, 1901 where "field goal" is used in a basketball context. (I have sent the screenshot to myl.) My question is this: Since basketball has never been considered to be played on a field, why are field goals called field goals? The original rules called them goals; indeed, the NYT articles on basketball uses only "goals" up until that 1901 article. At some point, someone borrowed the term from football, but why?

  31. mgh said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    boynamedsue, sorry I didn't realize the New Yorker archive was subscriber-limited. Here's the opening to it, which emphasizes the lexical kinship with basketball and, to a lesser degree, soccer (you're right; not football or rugby).

    You're on defense, zone defense. You pick up a loose ball and look for the outlet pass. You see it, throw it, and go down the middle on a fast break, taking the return pass. Now you're looking for a three-on-two or a two-on-one before they can set up their defense. Too late, they're settled — man-to-man. You're still looking for a two-on-one, but it's more complicated. You see and sense everybody — where they are, where they're headed, as things develop in almost constant motion. You watch for a backdoor cut, and for someone posting up. Maybe go for an outside shot. The coach is yelling his mantra, "Look for the open man!" There is no open man. Wary of a double-team, you give up the ball with a bounce pass. One player to the next, the ball moves two, three, four times before you set a pick, roll, take a no-look pass, and go to the hoop for a layup. Are you playing basketball? No.

    You could be, of course, every term and move alike. But this is lacrosse, which is essentially the same game — an assertion that loses a good deal of its novelty in the light of the fact that James Naismith, best known for inventing basketball, in 1891, and writing and publishing basketball's original rules, in 1892, was a lacrosse player. A Canadian, he had played lacrosse in the eighteen-eighties at McGill, and also for the New York Lacrosse Club.

    Lacrosse and basketball are siblings of soccer, hockey, and water polo. When the rules of ice hockey were written, in the eighteen-seventies, a model they followed was lacrosse. [Excursion on the similarity of the "power play" from lacrosse to that of hockey and water polo.] Soccer coaches have said that soccer consists of lacrosse's clearing and riding.

  32. Bloix said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    Andrew – we don't know if basketball borrowed the term from football. The phrase "field goal" may have been in use in other sports long before football. Based on what's been said here, we don't know.

    James Naismith's original "13 rules" don't refer to field goals, only goals. But they do refer to the floor as "the field."

    In basketball (and field hockey), the reason to use the word "field goal" and not just "goal" is that you can also score points on a penalty. (You can in soccer, too, but in soccer the penalty shot counts the same as any other goal, so you don't need a different word). In Naismith's rules, three fouls led to a point against the offending team; there were no free throws, and no need for different names for different kinds of scores.

    So the time to look for the origin of "field goal" in basketball is, perhaps, around the time that the free throw was introduced. I don't know when that was; some other researcher may want to spend some time on google to see what they can learn.

  33. felix said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 5:14 am

    The Rugby Union rules from which American (and Canadian and Australian) football developed date from 1871.

    Common misconception by people who aren't familiar with Australian rules football. Aside from the fact that you can hold the ball in your hands, it isn't really very similar to rugby. Possibly the confusion is also caused by the fact that some parts of Australia play rugby, and some play Aussie rules, and each region calls their main sport " football ”.

  34. boynamedsue said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 7:34 am

    Cheers mgh. Yes, I can see the clear link to basketball terminology from the extract you posted.

    It would be interesting to know if the French lacrosse vocab uses the same terms (or literal translations), or uses pre-codification words.

  35. Cale said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 6:55 pm

    I am almost certain that the type is the original reference to a field goal being worth 2. The second reference is correct. Field goals at the time were worth 5 points.

  36. Picky said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 6:18 am

    The Australians do quite unfairly well at almost any sport you can mention, of course. They play the two rugby codes as well as Australian rules – and association football, too.

  37. Picky said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 6:24 am

    I've even heard a rumour that they play cricket.

  38. Phil Goldfarb said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

    To Richard Hershberger:
    It's actually Harvard's stadium (built 1903, cement and immovable, still standing – and just barely large enough for a football field + track) that forced the constant field width (and thus eventually the forward pass). The Yale Bowl would have been expandable (and was built later, in 1914).

    Also, from the math, I think Cale is right – the 5 points is correct (the final score would be wrong as well as the 5 points if the "5" is the typo, while only the "2" need be discarded if that's the typo).

  39. Ken Brown said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 8:32 am

    There is some early football terminology is the novel Tom Brown's Schooldays. Set in Rugby School in the late 1820s, and written by Thomas Hughes, who had been at the school at that time, it presumably is a fairly accurate memoir.

    The football they played there is nothing much like any code played anywhere now. But some of the terminology is the same. The teams were huge and of no fixed size, and spectators could intervene if the ball went outside the boundary – when the ball went out of play the first side to touch it gained possession and that included supporters as well as players. I think Hughes claims that this is the origin of the phrase "in touch" for a ball that is out of the main field of play. In Rugby nowadays a ball that is kicked over the side of the pitch rather than the end is said to be "kicked in to touch" So the (later) "touch down" was when the ball was "in touch" and put down on the ground. When a ball went over the endline and was then touched by a player (or possibly even a spectator) the side that held or gained possession got a free kick, which they could use to try for at goal – as someone said the origin of the word "try".

    Richard Hershberger said:

    "As the scrum was interpreted in the U.S. this tended to result in the two teams deadlocked with the ball between them indefinitely. The scrum was changed (perhaps through tacitly-accepted cheating, later formally allowed) so that the team which had previously had the ball could tip it back to one of its own players. This was the origin of the scrimmage, with the center (who originally hiked the ball with his foot) and the quarterback. It also resulted in set-piece plays, which is still a defining characteristic of the American version."

    Actually this happened in Rugby as well. The player who hooks the ball back with his foot is called the "hooker" (not a name that is current in American football I suspect…) and the forwards try to pass the ball to one of the two "half-backs" who is the link between the forwards and the rest of the team. The one who receives the ball is called the called the "scrum half" (often the smallest player on the team, because they are supposed to be very nimble and fast), the other one is the "fly half" (very often the team's specialist goal-kicker – though fullbacks do that as well).

    What goes on in a scrum was (as you say) technically against the rules at one time. Rugby League recently took the logical way out by changing the rules so that scrums hardly ever happen, and when they do they are now hardly ever contested, the side that puts in simply keeps the ball (which might still be technically against the rules). Rugby Union chose to go for the spectacle of contested scrums and changed the rules to force that to happen. So you get its characteristic phalanxes of forwards trying to push each other off the ball.

    I think the real difference is passing forward, and being allowed to tackle players who aren't in contact with the ball.

    The system of "downs" makes a big difference between American football and Rugby Union, but Rugby League has something similar in it's six-tackle rule. There are nowadays very few set-pieces in professional Rugby League at all – what usually happens is that the moment a player is tackled to the ground the two sides separate and the player with possession taps the ball back to a team-mate, who runs with it until they are tackled. This is allowed to happen five times – after the sixth tackle with the same side in possession there is an enforced turnover and the other team gets the ball. That leads to a very very fast game but sometimes a very repetitive one.

    In League the attacking team tries to gain territory metre by metre very much as in American football (though without the passing forward). Rugby Union has many more interruptions and set-pieces, and sometimes bogs down into a sort of trench warfare in the mud, but possession changes more often and the ball moves more even if the players don't.

    On the other topic, I think the myth that Gaelic and Australian football is a totally separate game is as silly as the myth that football derives from lacrosse or the myth that baseball was invented in the USA. Football of some sort seems to have been played all over Europe and Asia for centuries, with different local rules and traditions in every town, village or school. What happened in the 19th century was codification more than invention. So there is no real substance behind the idea that any one kind of football is older than any other or was invented in any one place.

    By contrast all our main ball-and-stick games really do seem to come from one area – the south-east corner of England; the counties of Kent, Surrey, and Sussex. Which is the home of both cricket and baseball (& therefore indirectly of softball), as well as rounders; and also some purely local games including bat-and-trap and stoolball. Both of which were played in Brighton when I was a child in the 1960s – stoolball at school, and bat-and-trap at events organised by trade unions. It would be a fine and sentimental thing to think that this is some local survival of old folk customs from trade guilds but I would not be at all surprised if in fact it was a 20th-century revival by some Anglo-Catholic socialist vicar.

    As this is language log can I make the totally stringy claim that this is analogous to the way languages are often most diverse near their point of origin? Maybe just as the greater variety of English in the British Isles than in North America is a clue that English has a longer history there, so that ball-and-stick games are more diverse in the south-east of England than in the entire of the rest of England is a clue that they originated there.

  40. Picky said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 10:18 am

    Cricket and rounders, yep, Ken, but hockey and golf and polo?

  41. Richard Hershberger said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 11:28 am

    Ken Brown: "By contrast all our main ball-and-stick games really do seem to come from one area – the south-east corner of England; the counties of Kent, Surrey, and Sussex. Which is the home of both cricket and baseball (& therefore indirectly of softball), as well as rounders"

    Cricket does indeed come from the south-east of England. Baseball is less clear. There are only a handful of 18th century references to baseball. I would be very reluctant to read too much into such a small data set.

    As for rounders, this originally was a lexical innovation: a new name for the old game of baseball. The game was played in both England and anglophone North America. Americans retained the old name. (More precisely, some regions did: other names arose in some regions, principally "town ball" and "round ball". The modern standardized form comes of an area where "base ball" was the normal term.) In England the old name "base ball" died out, and when the American version was introduced to England in 1874 it was widely identified with rounders, but forgotten that "base ball" was actually an old name in England.

  42. Laverne Shefte said,

    July 24, 2011 @ 11:03 pm

    Some of the issues are still unresolved I feel :/

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