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It’s 1:30 Monday afternoon and I just drove home from Santa Clara where Jim Harbaugh conducted his weekly news conference. I will write my column based on it later.

One thing struck me and I want to talk to you about this. It was Harbaugh’s use of words — I will call them war words and I’ll get back to them in a moment.

First, I want to tell you about Ian Watt, my professor at Stanford, now deceased. He directed my PhD thesis on Joseph Conrad — although I don’t think he much liked it. Ian wrote a famous book called The Rise of the Novel. Anyone who wants to know about the English novel must read that great book. Ian was English, was educated at Cambridge, and he was an academic genius and he helped me think precisely, although I don’t always do that.

He introduced me to the specificity of words and he made me appreciate that. Once I wrote a sentence about something or other, and he took issue with it, said my thinking was imprecise. I said, “You know what I mean.” He stared at me. “I only know the words you write,” he informed me. And I got the point. You mean what you say or write. No one assumes anything else.

Now, I come back to Harbaugh. He was talking today about tying the Rams and he was praising the Rams, I believe. “It’s the NFL,” he said. “The enemy gets a vote.”

It was a gracious thing to say but the word enemy was the wrong word. I bring this up because he often refers to the other team as the enemy. The other team is NOT the enemy. I hear Ian Watt in my head as I write this. I wish Harbaugh had met Ian.

The other team is the other team. It is the opponent. All the teams play together, and they play by the same rules. When the game is over they shake hands. They are in the same league and they share TV profit. Hardly enemies.

The word enemy tells you a lot about Harbaugh. It really does. He thinks of opponents as enemies — I believe that. In his mind football is war — that explains all his secrecy, secrecy he takes to extremes.

Maybe it makes him a better coach to think of football as war and opponents as enemies. But football is not war. War is war. War is way more serious than football and way more sad and it is not a form of playing.

Harbaugh is getting his words all mixed up. Ian, a prisoner of the Japanese in World War II, most certainly would have told him that.

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38 Comments

  1. Stan

    I wish you would announce your going to be at the presscons like you do Comcast. Then,I would pay attention. I heard 7 and one half minutes of a droning monotone of Harbaugh..and changed the channel. His pointing and asking “Lowell?” in the q&a would get my viewing. It is televised live on TV and radio Lowell. I know you wont agree..but time to shine is then. When else can you ask the tough questions on the spot? And he can’t deny the answer later?

    But,he sure can coach!

    November 12th, 2012 1:59 pm

  2. Stan

    And screw Krueger who says “Harbaugh won’t play Lowell’s game” as the H-mans defense. You don’t play Harbaughs game.

    November 12th, 2012 2:01 pm

  3. Brady

    I don’t know that that’s a fair assessment. Harbaugh ripped the Giants OC for using the term “gets away with murder,” saying it was a ridiculous analogy.

    I think they are the “enemy” only within the context of the game; they are keeping the 49ers from getting what they want, the win. My guess is that if you asked Harbaugh the kid (or any very competitive kid [I wouldn't know, I'm not competitive]), he would have called his brother his monopoly enemy, or his father his battleship enemy.

    You don’t praise or offer public respect for you war enemies. The fact that he lauds and respects the other NFL teams (remember he called the 3-5 Rams “great”) suggests that he uses “enemy” as a strong synonym for “opponent”

    Also worth noting that merriam webster defines “enemy” as “one that is antagonistic to another; especially : one seeking to injure, overthrow, or confound an opponent.” It isn’t until the third definition that military is mentioned. Our connotations with enemy are usually related to war, but Harbaugh is correct in labeling the Rams enemies: they are the opponent.

    November 12th, 2012 2:03 pm

  4. Neal

    Kind of redundant Lowell, Football and War has been discussed many times. Many times players will say we are going to war and then the all mighty say that is not showing respect to our soldiers blah blah blah.

    November 12th, 2012 2:48 pm

  5. CohnZohn

    Neal, I’m sorry you find me so blah blah. I thought hard about this post.

    November 12th, 2012 3:00 pm

  6. Steve

    My undergrad degree is American Literature and my literary hero is Mark Twain. Mr. Clemens penned a sentence that compliments this piece: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Seems like Ian and Twain would have gotten along. Thank you, Dr. Cohn, for putting things in proper perspective.

    November 12th, 2012 3:13 pm

  7. CohnZohn

    Steve, You’re welcome.

    November 12th, 2012 3:22 pm

  8. Hoferfan67

    LC, I hear what you are saying, war is war and this is a game, but I won’t be too critical in this case. I do believe JH was much more respectful to the media today and his answers seemed to be more insightful. That was my take. What did you think?

    November 12th, 2012 3:26 pm

  9. CohnZohn

    Hoferfan67, I agree with you. It was a cordial press conference and Harbaugh did as well as he’s able to. I am not criticizing how he acted. I merely am pointing out his use of words so all of us can learn from it. I hope he takes it in that spirit.

    November 12th, 2012 3:34 pm

  10. Albert Park

    Lowell, with all due respect, you majored in English, whereas Mr. Harbaugh majored in Football. It’s a little unfair to expect a jock to be familiar with the specificity of words. Most of them barely passed English.

    November 12th, 2012 3:40 pm

  11. Dennis

    A couple of points Lowell:

    1. Harbaugh is not writing a novel, a thesis or a term paper. He is not even writing a column, a blog, a paragraph or a sentence. He is speaking.

    2. He speaks in a language that allows him to communicate in the application of his trade, which is coaching football (a long way from teaching English). He can’t speak over them, they won’t understand and he can’t speak beneath them, he will lose their respect. He must speak to them in language that they understand and can relate too. If he speaks to them in one language and to the press in an other, then the players may see him as a phony, not trusting which guy is the real Harbaugh.

    My suggestion is that as right as you may be about Harbaughs’ use of the English language I would save it for the classroom.

    November 12th, 2012 4:17 pm

  12. B-Rad

    You probably remember a good running back from Colorado named
    Eric Bieniemy (rhymes with thee enemy).

    During their 1990 national championship season, they traveled to
    Lincoln and beat Nebraska behind Eric’s 4 – 4th quarter TDs.

    During Nebraska’s post game radio show, a lady Cornhusker fan
    called in and reprimanded the show’s hosts by saying something
    like: ‘You know guys, I hate this little creep as much as you do,
    but I resent your constantly referring to him as ‘the enemy’. He is
    NOT the enemy. He is the opponent. When the game was over, we
    shook hands with him. We are in the same conference and share TV
    profits with them. Hardly enemies. Football is not war. War is war.
    War is way more serious than football and way more sad. You are
    getting your words all mixed up and I resent that you call him “the enemy’.’

    ‘Lady, his name is Eric BIENIEMY, B-I-E-N-I-E-M-Y!’

    ‘Oh. Never mind.’

    November 12th, 2012 4:17 pm

  13. Michael

    Lowell – Jim has spoken about this in the past and has on multiple occasion made sure to explain he doesn’t equate a football game to war (Noted above – He uses the word enemy and you take it one step further to mean “war”. Consider this recent passage from Cam Inman:

    “Harbaugh’s appreciation for the military has been well documented, and he knows where the correlation stops between war and sports. “We don’t compare what we do. We honor the military,” Harbaugh said. “We know their fight is life and death. It’s different from what we do.”

    November 12th, 2012 4:26 pm

  14. CohnZohn

    Michael, then he should alter his vocabulary to reflect his true thoughts.

    November 12th, 2012 5:07 pm

  15. Myk04

    Its football Lowell. Its a violent sport. Players have a certain mentality when going into games. You want to pound the other team into submission. So their is an element of preparing yourself mentally for a fight. They are the enemy and you can’t let up.

    Even so, it was a figure of speech that he was using. I don’t even think he was being literal.

    November 12th, 2012 5:22 pm

  16. Sean Nolan

    “I hear Ian Watt in my head as I write this. I wish Harbaugh had met Ian.”

    Yes that would have worked out swell.

    Everything is amped up in sports, especially football, especially the language. It’s dramatic and simple: enemy/friend, in/out, win/lose the “war” in the space of 3-4 hours on a Sunday afternoon. That’s what I mean by amped up.

    Harbaugh is hardly alone being an amped-up coach.

    November 12th, 2012 5:26 pm

  17. CohnZohn

    Sean, Maybe Harbaugh would have liked Ian Watt. Maybe he would have learned something. How do you know?

    November 12th, 2012 5:36 pm

  18. Loneraider78

    LC, I’d be interested to hear your opinion on what Jim’s brother John did against the Raiders yesterday–aside from destroy them. What do you think of a team running a fake FG up 41-17?

    I’ve always been a “no mercy” kind of guy when it comes to football, but even I had to look at that as unneccessary and rediculous.

    November 12th, 2012 5:52 pm

  19. David

    Wow, sports writers must be a sensitive bunch! Your colleague Robert Rubino wrote a long article (diatribe?) on the SF Giants announcers using the word torture to describe the 2010 Giants season. He railed about the announcers equating baseball wins and losses to real torture. Is all this angst due to your education or something else?

    November 12th, 2012 5:57 pm

  20. Sean Nolan

    “Sean, Maybe Harbaugh would have liked Ian Watt. Maybe he would have learned something. How do you know?”

    Because they’re so far apart they would never have given each other a chance.

    November 12th, 2012 6:49 pm

  21. Sean Nolan

    Maybe Ian Watt could have learned something from Harbaugh. I mean as long as we’re talking fantasy here.

    November 12th, 2012 6:56 pm

  22. CohnZohn

    Loneraider78, I don’t know the full story, but I wondered if it reflects a Harbaugh state of mine.

    November 12th, 2012 6:59 pm

  23. CohnZohn

    David, Maybe it’s due to right thinking. What’s your excuse?

    November 12th, 2012 6:59 pm

  24. CohnZohn

    Sean, I’m sure Ian would have found Harbaugh colorful in a Dickensian sort of way.

    November 12th, 2012 7:00 pm

  25. David

    So you are right and everyone else is wrong? I know you won’t miss me but I will read someone else from now on.

    November 12th, 2012 7:06 pm

  26. ritzy

    Pointing out his use of words so we can “learn” from it? Respectfully, I completely disagree with you. I think the word ‘enemy’ is accurate. Just because YOU associate the word with war is really irrelevant as supported by the poster above who referenced Websters.

    BTW – Who asked if Alex was getting x-rays for his concussion? I’d be interested to read her column, thx.

    November 12th, 2012 7:08 pm

  27. CohnZohn

    ritzy, look up enemy. It refers to someone you want to hurt. It is way different from opponent. Again, I believe the words you choose matter. If you disagree, that’s your business.

    November 12th, 2012 7:16 pm

  28. CohnZohn

    Gee, David, I know you won’t be reading this because you won’t be reading me anymore, but you seem oversensitive.

    November 12th, 2012 7:18 pm

  29. CohnZohn

    rityzy, I didn’t ask if Smith is getting X-rays. I swear. All the writers were embarrassed when that question came out.

    November 12th, 2012 7:20 pm

  30. Capts

    Lat year they wore “blue collar” dress ups. Never mind these are millionaires. I guess playing “war” and pretending to be disenfranchised are cornerstones to a Harbaugh coached team.

    November 12th, 2012 9:40 pm

  31. mendozaline

    Lowell, how about the expression “perfect is the enemy of the good.” Words have many meanings and language is dynamic. You know that Harbaugh does not want to physically hurt any opponent.

    Players and coaches do not share any NFL profit. Only owners do.

    November 12th, 2012 10:43 pm

  32. Brady

    Lowell, you tell Ritzy to look up enemy, saying that it is someone you intend to hurt. Yet you dismissed my earlier comment.

    From Merriam-Webster: “one that is antagonistic to another; especially : one seeking to injure, overthrow, or confound an opponent.”

    From Dictionary.com: “a person who feels hatred for, fosters harmful designs against, or engages in antagonistic activities against another; an adversary or opponent.”

    I would expect an english major to have a full grasp of the definitions, not such a narrow-minded one.

    November 12th, 2012 11:24 pm

  33. Johnc

    There is so much going on in this stream of consciousness blog today that it makes your head spin.
    When I was a freshman in high school I read a book entitled “Beyond Courage” which is about prisoners in Japanese POW camps. It is something you never forget.
    I think Harbaugh would have great respect for Ian Watt. Ian might regard Harbaugh much as I suspect you do, Lowell, i.e. as an interesting but flawed character in the Shakespearan play we call life. He certainly had been the subject of many of your blogs and columns.

    Perhaps like Captain Ahab he will eventually implode in pursuit of the Great White Whale whom he perceives as the enemy.

    George Carlin did a very funny routine contrasting the warlike language used in football to the terminology used in baseball. If you want a good laugh here is a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Yl-WhoSX0E

    November 13th, 2012 1:52 am

  34. Stan

    U dont know nuthin about writin and you attacks on Harbaugh meanes I will from now on read your posts TWICE as fast so as not to spend alot of time reading every single post every single day.
    take that.
    signed,
    A Fan.

    November 13th, 2012 2:02 pm

  35. Dr. Feelgood

    Nice post Lowell. You’ve drawn the readers into an Language discussion. Refreshing.

    I have often used “enemy” and feel that the word is broad enough to apply to non-military type applications, to the more mundane uses such as quoted of Mr. Harbaugh. So, I checked Webster’s on-line. Draw your own conclusions, here is how they weigh in-
    en·e·my
    noun \ˈe-nə-mē\
    plural en·e·mies
    Definition of ENEMY
    1: one that is antagonistic to another; especially : one seeking to injure, overthrow, or confound an opponent
    2: something harmful or deadly
    3a : a military adversary
    b : a hostile unit or force
    Examples of ENEMY
    1. He made a lot of enemies during the course of his career.
    2. Tradition is the enemy of progress.
    Origin of ENEMY
    Middle English enemi, from Anglo-French, from Latin inimicus, from in- 1in- + amicus friend — more at amiable
    First Known Use: 13th century
    Related to ENEMY
    Synonyms: adversary, antagonist, foe, hostile, opponent
    Antonyms: amigo, friend
    Related Words: archenemy, archfoe, nemesis; ill-wisher; bane, bête noire; assailant, attacker, combatant, invader; competitor, emulator, rival
    Near Antonyms: buddy, chum, compadre, crony, fellow, hail-fellow, hail-fellow-well-met, hearty, hobnobber, mate, musketeer, pal; abettor (also abetter), accomplice, ally, collaborator, colleague, comrade, confederate, friendly, partner; adherent, disciple, follower; backer, benefactor, exponent, supporter, sympathizer, well-wisher

    What really jumps out is the original Latin, in essence; ‘opposite of friend’

    November 13th, 2012 6:33 pm

  36. CohnZohn

    Thanks, Dr. Feelgood

    November 13th, 2012 6:41 pm

  37. Nancy R

    Words matter. “Enemy” reflects Harbaugh’s attitude. His focus should be on his team winning because of their (his) savvy, not on focusing on the other team by giving them provocative labels. The Rams are not enemies. Imagine if a coach called the other team his “friends.” Wouldn’t that rock the football world? Writers wouldn’t know what to do with that word. By the way the Rams coach called some gutsy and surprising plays that Harbaugh wouldn’t have called. I’d rather hear about teams and coaches making bold, exciting, winning plays rather than name calling. Name calling of the other team is a distraction from your own failures.

    November 17th, 2012 4:14 am

  38. Funx

    Did Harbaugh mention war in this particular news conference or did you just put those words in his mouth? I’m just curious. I’m sure your answer will clear everything up.

    November 17th, 2012 1:57 pm

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