Ask Language Log: matriculate meaning "move"

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From Jeffrey Kallberg:

Has anybody tracked down the origins of the sports (mostly American football, afaik) usage of the word “matriculate” to mean something like “to move from one place to another” (either physically or in a descriptive sense)? I ran into a recent example of this in a recent NBC Sports column — "FMIA Guest: Rich Eisen On The NFL’s Ultimate Course Correction On PI", 6/17/2019:

So when Riveron stepped to the mic at the NFL Network gathering last week and finally matriculated his way to the pass interference replay portion of his two-hour presentation to the group, it was like a large piece of filet mignon steak being plated for the whole room to consume.

A little googling suggests a possible origin in a malapropism uttered by Hank Stram during a Super Bowl, in a conversation inadvertently picked up by a microphone:

But the Urban Dictionary isn’t necessarily decisive on such questions.

Ben Zimmer responds:

Urban Dictionary is on the money here. Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram can be heard saying "Just keep matriculating the ball down the field, boys" at 1:30 in this NFL Films video from Super Bowl IV:

It's not clear to me whether Stram was the original source, or just a recorded example of an already-widespread usage.

Some other current examples:

[link] It’s been 26 years since a major professional sports championship has been played in this vibrant and picturesque city, and for the past few weeks, Toronto has turned into an NBA-first town, perhaps not permanently, as the Raptors matriculated their way to the NBA Finals.

[link] A 28th-round pick in 2005, he matriculated his way through the Giants’ system, reaching the big leagues in 2008.

[link] So as Williams matriculated through his formative football years, he naturally gravitated to the running back position. The ball had to be in his hands.

[link] The Red Devils tried their press, to no avail. Ugbaja and Clark broke through early, matriculating the ball up the court where Dante Henderson hit a floater and drew a foul, hitting the and-one to put Riordan on top, 50-38 with 6:04 left.

[link] After matriculating the ball from their own 40-yard line down into the red zone, the Panthers had a first-and-goal from the New Orleans 8-yard line.



  1. Theophylact said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 8:21 pm

    A perfectly cromulent usage.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 8:57 pm

    It's possible that Stram originated the malapropistic usage at that moment (January 11, 1970). Here's the scenario I envisage.

    I think that he intended to say "Just keep marching the ball down the field, boys," subconsciously wanted to use a bigger, fancier word, and one with the letters "ma*r******ing" in the right order came out. There was also a certain amount of wires getting crossed in his brain and tongue — he was a fast, staccato talker. Moreover, "-rch-" might well have morphed into "-tri-" in the heat of the moment when he was talking so rapidly and had his mind on a dozen other things. You can see from the look in his eye and on his face in the video that he was already thinking of something else beside what was coming out of his mouth.

    My own college basketball coach, Doggie Julian, was prone to such idiosyncratic usages (see here).

    Finally, sports recruiters and coaches always have their minds on "matriculating" the best athletes. I went through that myself ("just sign on the dotted line, son"). That would account for how Stram was intimately familiar with such a fancy word as "matriculating". Given Stram's legendary reputation in professional sports, it would not be surprising if other coaches picked up that usage from him.

    In any event, that's my hypothesis.

  3. JPL said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 12:21 am

    From the examples I get the impression that the word is being used to describe movement that resembles in form that of a pinball making its way down from the top of the machine to the bottom; I'm sure there is no etymological basis for this usage. For a mistakenly reached-for similar sounding word, I would suggest 'reticulate'. Funny how this probable neologism has caught on in the sports world. There's the transitive "matriculated the ball" and the pseudo-transitive "matriculated his way" based on the idiomatic "made his way (e.g., through the crowd)" (cf. "wended his way", "maneuvered")

    [(myl) In addition, there seems to be the implication that the progress is a Good Thing.]

  4. Victor Mair said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 4:46 am

    It's an especially Good Thing for talented athletes who come from impoverished or deprived backgrounds — an effective way to get ahead, go forward in life.

  5. Jeffrey Kallberg said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 8:21 am

    Thanks for the insights of the origins and use of the sports version of "matriculate."

    I wonder further whether any of the authors are using the word in an ironic sense, with a nod toward the humor behind Stram's "invention" of this meaning mixed with knowledge of the "real" definition of the word. The author I quoted, Rich Eisen, comes out of an American TV network (ESPN) where the announcers were/are famed for their joking demeanors, and so I wouldn't find it hard to discover he used the word with an implied wink of the eye. On the other hand, the examples that Mark found suggest that the Stram meaning has morphed into a standard secondary meaning of the word.

  6. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 8:30 am

    To matriculate is in origin, I believe, to be placed on a register (matricula): its use to mean 'to be admitted to a college' or the like derives from that. Some of the uses here would actually fit that sense – a player, moving from one team to another, is placed on the list of players for that team. Its use for literal movement on a field might then arise by extension from this.

  7. Emily Brewster said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 10:44 pm

    Merriam-Webster did an article about this word a few months ago: I love that Stram included the term in his Football Hall of Fame induction speech.

  8. Mick O said,

    June 28, 2019 @ 2:07 pm

    I contend that that this should only be considered a malapropism inasmuch as any use of the phrase "matriculated from" which seems to me a somewhat commonly-accepted synonym (rightly or wrongly, according to your worldview) for "graduated from." I am mildly surprised that the above-linked M-W article did not even take that usage into account. If "matriculated from" can mean "graduated from" then it is not such a far stretch to consider moving the ball into a better field position to a graduation to a more advanced strata.

  9. Rick said,

    June 28, 2019 @ 3:30 pm

    This usage could also be reinforced by "ambulate" which actually does mean to move.

  10. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 28, 2019 @ 6:13 pm

    I'm inclined to read this usage of "matriculate" as influenced by "manipulate" and "maneuver". You don't just move the ball linearly downfield; you have to employ various strategems, feints, and dodges along the way. And when it comes to "matriculating" up the career ladder, actual matriculation in an academic program is one of the maneuvers you employ.

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