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Grand slam

Q From Jonathan Odell: There’s been lots of talk about grand slam as a result of Andy Murray’s success in the US Open. Where did it come from?

A Etymologically this slam has no connection with the word for a violent action, such as slamming a door. The immediate origin was the card game, bridge. Grand slam, to take all 13 tricks in a hand, has for more than a century been part of the vocabulary of players. Bridge became hugely popular in the US from the last years of the nineteenth century on and the term very soon began to take on other associations.

It’s often said that the American journalist Allison Danzig took the card term and applied it to tennis in 1938. He was writing about the achievement of Donald Budge that year in winning all four major singles titles — the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. (Budge wasn’t the first to win them all, Fred Perry having achieved that two years earlier with his US Open success, but Perry didn’t win all four in the same year.) Danzig’s employment of it, if he did, was beaten by five years by this:

Crawford, already the holder this year of the Australian, French and British singles championships, will make his bid for the first “grand slam” in tennis history when he plays Perry tomorrow afternoon for the American title.

Salt Lake City Tribune (Utah), 10 Sep. 1933. In a syndicated report by Alan Gould of the Associated Press. Crawford failed: Fred Perry beat him.

This wasn’t its first use in sports. It’s said that O B Keeler of the Atlanta Journal had used grand slam to describe the success of golfer Bobby Jones, who in 1930 won all four of the major golfing titles (British amateur, US open, British open and US amateur). I can’t confirm Keeler’s use, but the term was around widely from about July that year as Jones won successive tournaments and the expectation increased that he would succeed in all four. This is how one newspaper of many described the culmination:

Bobby Jones swamped Gene Homans, 8 and 7, today in the finals of the U. S. amateur championship thereby completing his unparalleled “grand slam” in golf for 1930.

Beatrice Daily Sun (Nebraska), 28 Sep. 1930.

I’ve since found that it was also being used in other contexts for a team that won all its matches in a contest: it certainly appeared in reports about Davis Cup matches earlier the same year, so predating its use for the grand slam tennis singles titles.

Furthermore, Paul Dickson, in The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, notes that it refers to a “home run hit with the bases loaded” and that the usage dates from an article in the New York Times on 27 May 1929: “One pinch-hitter thus producing what is known in baseball as a grand slam is enough to make a ball game momentous”. He also says it was used earlier for any hard-hit ball that scored a lot of runs, or indeed any home run. This is the earliest baseball reference I can find:

After the game had been cinched in the sixth, the Infants couldn’t stop that awful stampede by the Camels. The herd almost pushed one across in the seventh but clever work by Sterling stopped it. The eighth however, was a grand slam for the Camels.

Muscatine Journal (Iowa), 15 July 1910.

I’ve found it in the same year as a figurative term for a decisive or knockout blow:

Lulu’s press agent, having exhausted all other schemes, advertises for a husband for his star, the idea being to give the victim the “grand slam” at the altar, thus affording the reporters a great first page story.

San Antonio Light and Gazette, 20 Oct. 1910. This is from a review of a comedy play, Lulu’s Husbands by Thompson Buchanan.

The venerable bridge sense seems in turn to have acquired it from whist, in which a slam (without the grand) was likewise the taking of all 13 tricks in a hand. The Oxford English Dictionary has taken this back to a book of 1660. But it’s older still. An earlier game called ruff and honours, an ancestor of whist, had several names, one of them slam. It’s now thought that slam here is likely to be from the obsolete slampant of the previous century, which meant trickery. To give someone a slampant meant to play a trick on a person or hoodwink them. It must surely be connected with trick in the card sense, which dates from about the same time.

This penumbra of sense around slam has long since vanished. The first figurative users of grand slam had slam in the bridge sense in their minds but coloured by the physical one. Today the physical sense overwhelms the other.

Incidentally, grand slam in tennis, in the sense of winning all four of the major singles tournaments, is so rare an accomplishment that the term has weakened to winning any of the four titles, which are often called grand-slam titles. When this happened is hard to pin down. Andy Murray is a grand slam winner in this weaker sense — he hasn’t won any of the four majors other than the US Open, though he has been finalist or semi-finalist in all of them. But getting Olympic gold and winning the US Open within one month is surely enough of a grand slam for anyone.

Page created 22 Sep. 2012

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Last modified: 22 September 2012.