Super Bowl L?

Today is Super Bowl XLVI, and NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday took some time in its coverage this morning to coach listeners on their Roman numerals (“A Rhyme to Remember Your Roman Numerals”, here). In this segment, Ian Chillag noted:

… in 2016, we get to Super Bowl 50, which in Roman numerals is Super Bowl L. Now, L, you may know, is the universal symbol for loser. The NFL is so concerned about this, they’re already having internal meetings about what to do.

I can’t imagine what the NFL could do about the 2016 Super Bowl, beyond gritting their teeth and rolling with the L. Avoiding the letter L — or any specific letter — scarcely seems practicable.

But: universal symbol?

Mark Liberman (and a pile of commenters) discussed the status of the letter L as a visual symbol conveying a slur (LOSER, LAME, or dismissive LATER) on Language Log back in 2009 (here). The L gesture, especially on the forehead, has been used in one or another of these ways, by different groups and in different contexts, since at least the 1980s. (Separately, it’s been used as an ASL sign for LESBIAN. Think The L Word.) An illustration:

The sign is easy to make, and can convey any number of L-initial words. As the slur LOSER, it seems to be well-known in the U.S., especially among younger people and in sporting contexts.

(Of course, today either the New York Giants or the New England Patriots will end up a loser.)

6 Responses to “Super Bowl L?”

  1. jlundell Says:

    XLX, I suppose.

  2. Chris Ambidge Says:

    they’ve been using “L” in superbowl numbering since XL. I spoze they could abandon Roman numerals and go for Arabic (assuming that won’t be seen as Letting The Terrorists Win). Or call it the “Golden Jubilee Super Bowl” or something like that — then go back to Roman numerals when it’s no longer just-L-all-by-itself.

    (maybe this comes to mind since this is the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee)

  3. Paul Says:

    Why on earth do they insist on using roman numerals anyway? What about just calling it “Superbowl 2016”?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I think they went for the gladiatorial vibe. Arabic numerals (SB 46) or year names (SB 2012) would have done just as well, but once they got on the Roman numeral train they felt obliged to stay on it.

  4. Jim Fidelholtz Says:

    OK. Now that we linguists have had our say (NB: without really coming to any conclusion), maybe we can just forward all this discussion to the NFL league office with our conclusion that, if linguists can’t agree among ourselves about the likely consequences of just keeping the ‘L’, then the public is unlikely to connect up the numeral vs. (‘loser’, etc.) interpretations, unless the NFL itself harps on it too much. Anyway, there’s 4 years in between for them to forget about this inconsequential discussion (if they even notice it), until some wag sports writer reinvents the initial observation.

    Btw (I know that’s not good form, but the residual prescriptivist in me just won’t let me use all lower case here, and all upper case looks too ugly), in 2015 it will be SB XLIX, so I don’t really see why they couldn’t call the next one ‘SB XLX’, or even ‘XLX ;)’.

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