Do Sports Commentators Really Mean “Prolific”?

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I recently heard Don Van Natta Jr., author of a book about presidential golfers called First Off the Tee(2003), being interviewed on the radio. In describing the golfing habits of U.S. presidents, he commented that Woodrow Wilson was “the most prolific golfer.”

Calling a golfer “prolific” struck me as odd. I’m used to hearing writers, composers, and painters who produce a lot of work being described as “prolific,” but not athletes.

A Google search for “prolific golfer” brought up 729,000 results. “Prolific athlete” garnered three million hits. Evidently the word is taking on a new meaning.

Literally, prolific means “productive of offspring.” The word entered English in the 17th century from French prolifique, which in turn derives from Latin proles, “offspring” and facere, “to make.”

Human beings, animals, and plants that produce a lot of offspring are literally prolific.

Writers who produce a lot of books are prolific in a figurative sense.

South African writer Mrs. Mary Faulkner, whom the Guinness Book of World Records ranks as history’s most prolific novelist, wrote under six pen names, including Kathleen Lindsay.

The most prolific musician was Tyagarajah of South India, reputed to have composed 100,000 songs.

[Johannes Sebastian] Bach was prolific in his self reproduction as well as his composition. He fathered twenty children, but only seven survived infancy.

Another common meaning of prolific is “abundant.”

Intrepid’s philosophy is to explore areas where prolific amounts of oil and/or gas are being found.

[Goldenrod] blooms at the same time as ragweed but does not cause prolific sneezing and nose dripping!

Merriam-Webster offers a definition that could be stretched to apply to athletic pursuits: “marked by abundant and often rapid productivity.”

However, “prolific” as used in sports writing seems to be used with different meanings.

Sometimes “a prolific athlete” is “an athlete who excels at more than one sport or in more than one category of a sport”:

At North, [Clayton Dalyrmple ] was a prolific athlete that competed in every possible sport the school offered and was successful in all of them.

A prolific athlete, Patoulidou throughout her athletics career competed in the 100 metres, 100 metres hurdles and in the long jump events.

Sometimes “a prolific athlete” is “an athlete who plays frequently”:

U.S.’s most prolific golfer John Furin A Hibbing… set the record for the most rounds of golf in a year, playing 572 times.

Sometimes the meaning is opaque:

New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush has signed an endorsement deal with Red Bull, becoming the most prolific athlete yet to partner with the energy drink maker.

As far as I can discover, the only sport Reggie Bush plays is football. Perhaps profitable, valuable, effective, or even well-known would be more to the point.

As for Woodrow Wilson, who played golf every other day, how about one of these:


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8 thoughts on “Do Sports Commentators Really Mean “Prolific”?”

  1. I heard that same commentary, and had the same thought. Well, to be honest, my first thought was, “I”m confused. Did he really say ‘prolific’?”

  2. I don’t give much attention to the language or word usage of sports commentators. Their main goal is to come up with some witty or unusual phrase that they hope will “catch on” and bring them accolades…

  3. I think a lot of the confusion stems from word association. When an author has written enough to have the term ‘prolific’ applied to him, he’s likely pretty famous. As a result, the two words have developed conflated meanings, with “prolific” (being used less prolifically) taking the backseat to the more commonly used “well-known.” I suppose you could make the argument that the Reggie Bush’s of the world have “produced” a lot of money/publicity, but I would say that’s stretching a bit.

  4. Prolific is completely acceptable in sports. How about… he was a prolific goal scorer? Matches the definition used in this example.

  5. @David: I agree with your point.
    I’ve been divorced for well over 10 years and my ex-husband and I used to joke about the use of the word “prolific” when applied to athletes; that pairing is nothing new. When I first heard it, I was like, “WHAT?? Does this person know what the word MEANS?” As time went on, I heard it misused countless times. It still grates on me, albeit somewhat less when applied to, for example, a baseball player who scores a lot of hits or home-runs, a football player who scores a lot of goals, a basketball player who scores a lot of baskets, etc. Still, technically these players do not “produce” home-runs, goals or baskets; they “score.” I suspect that if the writers substituted the phrase “high-scoring” or the word “productive” for the word “prolific,” first of all they would be correct, and second of all they would use the word “prolific” a lot less. Maybe a player could be a prolific hitter or scorer (meaning s/he specifically “produces” a lot of hits/baskets/goals), but not a prolific player. Still, I offer this with skepticism. I know that there are other words out there that will properly express what the writers really want to say, which is that these people are high scorers in their respective sports.

  6. If prolific works for an author or musician in a figurative sense then it can be applied equally to an athlete. Certainly the people that frequent this site are well-versed in English but what about golf, baseball, etc? Do you know enough about the accomplishments or the influence on the sport that the person has had to truly judge if they are prolific in their sport of choice? What about a football coach who has was a distinguished player, won multiple championships, and has numerous assistants who have gone on to be successful head coaches in their own right? Wouldn’t this person be prolific?

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