Slang City Mail

Click here to get this free weekly newsletter delivered to your e-mailbox! Want to see more? Go back to All the Words main page.

April 24, 2008

Slang of the Week: Hail Mary pass (noun phrase)
1. A last minute pass in American football that has almost no chance of success. 2. A desperate attempt to achieve something nearly impossible

It was just a friendly game of tag football after Mass, but it had been years since his team had beaten the Bishop's and Cardinal O'Neill thought it was worth trying a Hail Mary pass.

Celebrity quote
"The 1932 model was for Ford what the minivan was for Chrysler in the mid-1980s: a Hail Mary pass, completed in spectacular fashion for a touchdown as time was running out."
-J.P. Vettraino in Auto Week

Why am I writing about football in the spring? While it's not time for touchdowns and tackles, it is the time of year that American colleges welcome prospective freshmen for campus tours and measure the Flutie effect. And because it is impossible to define that term without first explaining the Hail Mary pass, I’ll start with that.

I know I have a lot of readers outside the US who do not understand the convoluted rules of American football, so I'll try to explain the basics. When there are no other possible ways to win, the quarterback throws the ball across the field (and over the other team) in hopes that his very faraway teammate in the end zone will catch it and score before he is knocked down by the opposition. To highlight difficulty of this maneuver, I should mention that large rival players also try to knock down the quarterback while he is making the pass.

The phrase is an abbreviation of the Catholic prayer that begins "Hail Mary, full of grace" and it is often attributed to Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, who told reporters he’d said that prayer before making such a play in a 1975 game against the Minnesota Vikings.

One of the most famous examples took place in 1984, when Boston College played against the University of Miami at the Orange Bowl. BC quarterback Doug Flutie threw a 48 yard (44 meter) pass to Gerald Phelan, winning in the very last second of the game. Many college admissions officers like to believe this amazing win accounted for a record increase in the next year’s applications to Boston College.

Thus, when a college has a well publicized sports success and subsequently becomes a more popular destination for high school students, it's called the Flutie effect. (The fact that schools sometimes have huge numbers of applicants after big losses tends to be ignored, as it is less interesting.) In spring, since many students are accepted to more than one school, colleges hope that a stellar athletic program might tip the balance in their favor.

While the Flutie effect seems limited to American colleges, the Hail Mary pass has moved on to metaphorical uses, as shown in the example above. And it has moved out of the country as well. While looking for examples, I was baffled by a 2006 article in the London Independent, which said of the Iraq war: "At this point, all plans to avoid disaster involve the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass." American football is not played in the UK, so I wondered how they came to adopt it. After a little digging, I discovered Hail Mary pass is now used to describe a similar play in rugby.

If you’ve never seen one, here’s an eleven second video of the spectacular Flutie Hail Mary pass. This one has much better video, but you must endure dramatic music and interviews before the actual event.

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick: Cassell's Dictionary of Slang by Jonathan Green. This excellent resource is one of the most comprehensive dictionaries of English Slang from the US, UK and Australia.