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: