The rise of Tebowing has been a linguistic phenomenon. Despite its global sweep, I forgive my UK readers for not quite knowing what I’m talking about. But it’s a great tale of how new words become fixed in English. So let me explain.
On October 23, the Denver Broncos enjoyed a dramatic 18-15 victory over the Miami Dolphins in the NFL. As wild celebrations ensued, star quarterback Tim Tebow was seen at the side of the pitch, down on one knee and and in prayer. So far, so comparatively normal.
Local fan Jared Kleinstein spotted the moment and persuaded a few of his friends to pose in similar vein to celebrate the victory. The picture was duly posted to Facebook. Immediately, people started to ‘like’ the image, and an international smash hit was born.
The tebowing blog followed soon afterwards, liberally filled with people ‘tebowing’ in ever more extravagant places. And by December, ‘tebowing’ was officially recognised as a word by the Global Language Monitor, defining it as the the act of ’taking a knee’ in prayerful reflection in the midst of an athletic activity. It is surely one of the quickest rises to linguistic acceptance of any word and is now an international fad.
So why has this word taken off? I think its success has a lot to do with the silliness which surrounds much of what we enjoy on the Internet. We have all seen and enjoyed countless viral pictures and jokes, via Facebook, email and other methods, and we enjoy them for their absurdity. But for true success,there has to be more. And this can quite often be the ability to personalise and participate.
So it is with tebowing, because its global surge is very little to do with the initial action by the player himself and much more to do with what people did with it. The fact that people could take part, show themselves as active participants in the phenomenon rather than merely observers, gave it its viral oomph. We are all part of the joke, we can all join in, so the word which describes what we are all doing needs to become established quickly because it confirms that we all belong to something official and legitimate.
It is also an action which is easy to replicate, in any place. I found myself thinking through famous goal celebrations of the past. Certain players always celebrated in the same way, but because they were from a different era and because they were not easy to reproduce anywhere in the world, they could never spawn their own word. Thus, running very fast with one arm up will never be known as ‘Shearering’, and running with one arm windmilling madly beside you is only ‘Channoning’ as far as I am concerned.
The final question for linguists is whether tebowing is here to stay, or whether its run as a fully-fledged word is for a single season. But even if it is consigned to the linguistic dustbin almost as quickly as it arrived, we should all go down on one knee and give thanks for a fabulous illustration of how well new words can explode in the English Language.