The Super Rugby season is well on its way, but the high hopes of South African fans at the start of the season – that their teams would do well because some ‘ace’ players would return from injury – are not being realised. But an ‘ace’, which was once linked to tax, may just spell bad luck.
The word ‘ace’ originally comes from the Latin word ‘as’, meaning “a unit” and was the name of a small Roman coin. It arrived in English via Old French, in which it indicated the side of a dice (that object, usually a cube, used to produce random numbers in gambling and non-gambling games) with only one mark.
Because the ‘as’ or ‘ace’ in English was the word for the lowest “roll of the dice”, it traditionally meant “bad luck” in Middle English.
The ace entered the world of playing cards when, in the early 17th century, King James VI required an insignia of the printing house to be printed on the Ace of Spades. This insignia was necessary for identifying the printing house, and for indicating it had paid a new tax introduced at the time.
This card most often became the highest playing card in the pack. On the back of this, the meaning of the word or term ‘ace’ changed to signify high quality or excellence. Today it is widely used in the world of sport, and wider to describe persons proficient in their field or specialist position. In rugby, most often it is applied to key or pivotal players such as fly-halves.
But to the huge disappointment of South African fans, some supposedly ‘ace’ players – especially fly-halves – have been turning out pretty mediocre performances during the first couple of games of the new season of Super Rugby.
And the history of the word ‘mediocre’ tells it all.
Meaning “only ordinary or moderate quality; neither good nor bad; or barely adequate”, the word ‘mediocre’ comes from the Latin word ‘mediocris’ meaning “in a middle state” or, literally, “at middle height”. It arrived in the English language toward the end of the 16th century via Middle French.
Probably the most quotable phrase on mediocrity in history came from the American writer Joseph Heller in his 196-page book, Catch-22, which also gave us a modern adage: "Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major, it had been all three."
The fact that we describe the performance of some players, and often whole teams as well, in the Super Rugby competition as ‘mediocre’ is most appropriate, considering the roots and origin of the word ‘super’.
The word comes, as it is spelled to this day, from the Latin word ‘super’, which was merely a translation by the Romans of the Greek word ‘yper’ or ‘hyper’, which meant “over” or “above” – beyond the normal or the norm, or ‘over and above’ what could normally be expected.
As a word on its own in English, it was first recorded in 1837 as meaning “first-rate” or “excellent”, having developed from ‘superfine’ recorded in 1682 – denoting the “highest grade”.
In the late 19th century, it is said to have gained, via slang use, extended meaning as a general term of approval, which found revival during the 1960s.
With such roots, one could expect of ‘Super’ Rugby to be of ‘hyper’ quality and of an especially high standard.