March Madness: brackets for the British
One of the most difficult things I have ever had to do as a lexicographer is explain to my British colleagues what a bracket is. Not ‘each of a pair of marks [ ] used to enclose words or figures so as to separate them from the context’, or ‘a right-angled support attached to and projecting from a wall for holding a shelf, lamp, or other object’, or even ‘A category of people or things that are similar or fall between specified limits’, but the uniquely American sense of the word that surges in use every year around this time: ‘a diagram representing the sequence of games in a sports tournament, especially as used for making predictions about its outcome’. Understanding this meaning of bracket requires understanding a whole range of uniquely American concepts, not least of which is the sports tournament with which brackets are most closely associated: the NCAA Division I College Basketball Championships, known colloquially as March Madness.
The phrase March madness predates the sport of basketball. It originally referred to March as a time of irrational behavior, most likely with allusion to the proverbial madness of March hares, whose breeding season is about that time and is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, ‘characterized by much leaping, boxing, and chasing in circles, and taken as the type of something mad’. The amateur basketball season tends to end in early spring, so championships often take place in March; by the 1930s, people in Indiana were using the term ‘March Madness’ to describe basketball tournaments, and it caught on nationwide once it was applied to the NCAAs around 1979.
President Barack Obama fills out his 2014 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament bracket during an ESPN interview with Andy Katz in the Map Room of the White House, March 18, 2014: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
The enormous cultural footprint of the NCAA basketball tournament in the United States cannot be explained by basketball fandom alone. Much of the madness in March madness is related to the aforementioned brackets. The NCAA championship is a single-elimination tournament involving 64 teams who play 67 games between the first round and the championship final; the order of the games is traditionally depicted in the form of a diagram referred to as a bracket, and an extremely popular form of informal gambling has emerged in which participants attempt to predict the correct outcome of every game before the tournament begins. Families, schools, and workplaces sponsor their own bracket pools; for the past two years, Warren Buffett has offered Berkshire Hathaway employees who correctly predict the outcomes of the first two rounds of games – a statistically almost impossible task – a prize of $1 million a year for life.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, the official presidential bracket was unveiled each year with great fanfare, giving ordinary Americans the chance to compare their own picks with those of the Commander-in-Chief. The likelihood of improbable outcomes with so many games at stake means that knowledge of basketball is not a guarantee of success, and many people who have not watched a single basketball game during the regular season suddenly find themselves glued to their televisions to see if Gonzaga pulls through to the Sweet Sixteen (the third round of the tournament, in which sixteen teams remain; see also Elite Eight (quarterfinals) and Final Four (semifinals)). Basketball games take place almost constantly during the first two rounds of the tournament, making the temptation to take time off and sit around watching the outcome of one’s picks so enticing that urologists report a measurable increase in the scheduling of vasectomies each year at the beginning of the tournament.
All of this interest in brackets means that during March Americans actually use the word bracket more often than at other times of the year. Oxford’s tracking corpus, which collects English content from around the Internet each month for analysis, shows a major spike in the use of the word each year, coinciding with the tournament.
Inevitably, the March Madness sense of bracket has inspired even more bracket vocabulary. A bracket-buster is a low-ranking team that unexpectedly defeats a high-ranking team, or the game in which such an upset occurs. Bracketology is the activity of predicting the outcomes of the games in a sports tournament, and a bracketologist is an expert at doing that. These words occasionally pop up with reference to other tournaments, but almost all usage occurs between February and April. With the championship games in this year’s Women’s and Men’s tournaments taking place on April 2nd and 3rd we can soon put away our bracket-related lexicon until 2018.