Are Exclamation Marks Killing Us With Kindness?
Whether you love their dance moves or hate their outfits, cheerleaders are a staple at most top-level football games, and they'll surely make an appearance at Sunday's Super Bowl.
And while today's cheerleaders use far more hairspray and perform more acrobatics than their forebears, their pep and spirit evokes more than a century of cheerleading history.
PHOTO: Houston Texans cheerleaders perform during a game against the Tennessee Titans at Reliant Stadium on Jan. 1, 2012 in Houston, Texas.
Not long after Yale played Harvard in the nation's first official college football game in 1869, a group of male Princeton students formed a "pep club" to cheer at games in the 1880s, according to the International Cheer Union, the sport's governing organization.
Cheerleading was officially born at the University of Minnesota on November 2, 1898, when "yell leader" Johnny Campbell picked up a megaphone and led the crowd in a rousing rendition of an already popular school chant: "Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah!"
Minnesota beat Northwestern that day.
Original caption for photo: Columbia University cheerleaders (left to right) Sullivan, Walker, Campbell and Winkoop, with their canine mascot Peter, at the Thanksgiving Day Game in New York, when Syracuse defeated Columbia, 9 to 6. Nov. 27, 1924.
After 25 years as a men's club, cheerleading first welcomed women at the University of Minnesota in 1923.
Still, men dominated sideline squads until the 1940s, when many male students left to fight in World War II. The gender balance never restored itself: Today, more than 90 percent of the world's cheerleaders are female.
At the college level, about 60 percent of cheerleaders are women. "Before Title IX in the 70s, cheerleading was a great athletic outlet for women and girls and a great self-esteem builder," said Sheila Noone, vice president of public relations for Varsity, an organization that produces cheerleading events and camps. "It takes a lot of guts to stand in front of 40,000 fans and tell them what to do."
Photo: A group of female cheerers ca. 1936
In the early days, cheerleading involved lots of yelling and jumping around. In the 1920s, tumbling and acrobatics entered the genre. By the 1970s, the sport had become more athletic, adopting sharper movements, music-enhanced routines, pyramids, and other entertaining tricks and stunts. The 80s saw the invention of All-Star cheerleading, in which unaffiliated teams began to compete against each other. People continue to debate whether cheerleading qualifies as a true sport, but ESPN has been broadcasting competitions for more than two decades and a new cheerleading-derived team sport called STUNT is vying to be considered as an NCAA Emerging Sport.
National Cheerleaders Association
In 1948, a charismatic cheerleader named Lawrence "Herkie" Herkimer at Southern Methodist University in Texas, started the first cheerleading camp with about 50 participants.
Today, hundreds of thousands of cheerleaders attend officially sanctioned camps and clinics each summer, and millions of people participate in more than 100 countries. With the front leg straight and the back leg bent, the Herkie is still a popular cheerleading jump. And cheerleaders now appear at more than just football games. They also root for basketball, soccer, cricket, rugby and other sports.
Photo: Lawrence Herkimer
The list of cheerleading alumni is full of famous names, including newscasters Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer; entertainment professionals Aaron Spelling, Meryl Streep and Steve Martin; and presidents Ronald Reagan, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Franklin D. Roosevelt and George W. Bush.
Cheerleading has always required character and the ability to command respect, and cheerleaders often act as role models and leaders in their schools, said Karen Lawrence, senior vice president of the National Cheerleaders Association in Garland, Texas.
"If you are trying to lead, there need to be reasons why people are going to follow you, besides that you are standing up and yelling," Lawrence said. "Cheerleading helps develop character. There is an emphasis on the positives in life and how to be the best you can be."
Photo: George W. Bush, Andover Philips Academy Year Book in 1964.
Despite anecdotal evidence that cheering boosts morale for players, there is no scientific proof that the fanfare helps teams play better, and it may do just the opposite.
Several studies in the 1980s showed a home-field advantage for baseball and basketball teams -- until crunch time, said Arnold LeUnes, a sports psychologist at Texas A&M University in College Station. In the seventh and deciding games of the World Series or the NBA finals, teams made more errors and shot fewer successful free throws when playing at home. That research has been criticized but offers food for thought.
"The home team was at a disadvantage in the most critical games," LeUnes said, "probably due to the effects of anxiety brought about by performing in front of loud, adoring but sometimes critical friends and family."
“PLEASE LET US KNOW HOW WE DID!!!” reads a receipt from the Carl's Jr. Drive Thru. “HAVE A GREAT DAY!!!” exclaims a Toyota service center receipt. “TOILET PAPER ONLY IN TOILET!!” says a sign in a public restroom.
Courtesy of a blog called Excessive Exclamation, these examples intend to illustrate how overused exclamation marks have become. Like the boy who cried wolf, the anti-exclamation crowd argues, constant shouting in written communication detracts from the meaning of our words. Some signs featured on the blog include six or more exclamation marks.
But exclamation marks don’t necessarily indicate the end of the linguistic world as we know it, some experts say. Language is always changing, and exclamation marks are just one example of how we alter the way we speak and write to foster social connections and adapt to changing modes of communication.
“Language changes,” said Naomi Baron, a linguist at American University In Washington, D.C., and author of "Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World." “If everyone else is doing it, no matter what you believe you should do, you end up doing it, too. In e-mails, I find myself using far more single exclamation points than I would three or four years ago, because everyone else does it to me.”
Back in the olden days, in the early 2000s, when texting was only called SMS and ubiquitous iPhones were still years away, mobile phone messages were nearly devoid of exclamation marks because typing in any kind of punctuation was a huge pain, Baron said.
It took tapping through several screens to get to the periods and apostrophes, so typing phrases like “I will” was easier than shortening to “I’ll.” As a result, text communication was actually more formal than casual speech.
Around that time, instant messaging was more popular than texting in the United States. And even though punctuation is easily accessible on computer keyboards, abbreviations and emoticons were scarce in early IMs, Baron found in a 2003 study. In general, people used IM’s to say what they wanted to say.
With their larger screens and keyboards, smartphones made it much easier to add punctuation, emoticons and more recently, emoji characters. These symbols of emotion spread quickly, particularly among teenage girls.
Studies, including Baron’s work, repeatedly show that girls and young women in a variety of countries use their phones for strengthening social connections more often than boys do. Girls also use more exclamation points and emoticons. In interviews, Baron said, teenage girls have complained that the texts they received from boys didn’t express enough emotion.
“They meant they weren’t using exclamation marks and smileys at the end,” Baron said. “They weren’t showing they cared about this communication in ways females tended to care about it.”
In journalistic writing, guidelines for using exclamation marks have remained the same for many years, said David Minthorn, co-editor of the AP Stylebook. The general principle is to proceed with caution and use the extra punctuation in quotes only when truly warranted.
“We don’t use very many exclamation points and the reasoning is that the words themselves should, in most cases, suffice,” Minthorn said. “Our basic guidance is to limit them to express a high degree of surprise, incredulity or other strong emotions.”
Social networking is not confined by such rules. And in their campaigns against exclamation points, some language purists have theorized that people are using more exclamatory punctuation in their texts and e-mails because they’re not spending as much time together, face-to-face.
But it’s equally possible that the exploding use of exclamation marks is simply another example of how written communication has become more informal in recent years.
Language experiences trends, much like fashion does, Baron said. Today, professional women wear pants. Teenage girls wear short skirts. And just about all of us pepper our messages with exclamation marks.
Next year, the fashions may very well change. By responding to people the same way they communicate with us, we bond.
People also show a sophisticated ability to tailor their writing to various modes of communication. On Twitter, for example, exclamation marks and emoticons are used far less often than in texts or other contexts.
“If we lose the ability to think through carefully what we say, that compromises language and the potential power of human interactions,” Baron said. But “there can be lots of power in emotional markers. They’re not necessarily a bad thing.”