Sunday, April 26, 2015

OK Calling Bike Clothes “Kit”?


Some people really care about words.  My favorite people are the type who will argue passionately and at length about a subtle shade of meaning.  I was reminded of this when, in a group e-mail to my cycling club, I employed some questionable vernacular, causing  a massive e-mail debate, comprising over thirty messages in all.

In this post I’ll capture some of the snarkier highlights of the debate; get at the heart of why “kit” is such a divisive term; and provide the perfect alternative so all cyclists can enjoy nomenclature that’s as frictionless as their bicycles’ bearings.

The mêlée

It must be said that a widespread dialogue was already underway, on a topic you shall read about soon enough, when my friend Trevor commented on my use of “kit.”  (As you may recall, our verbal sparring has appeared in these pages before.)  He wrote, “Calling it ‘kit’ is the pot calling the kettle black.  That’s British hipster lingo, and if they say things like ‘Campag’ and ‘mech’ and then say ‘bidon’ you should choose wisely from such a low body of terms.  ‘Kit’ is unwise.”

To appreciate Trevor’s point requires a bit of background.  About a year ago, in these pages, I excoriated the Velominati, a bunch of self-styled cycling experts, for their blatant cultural affectation.  One of the things I pointed out was that saying “bidon” instead of bottle strikes me, like so many of their behaviors, as pretentious and twee.  My outspokenness in this vein puts me in a vulnerable position should I ever abuse such lingo myself.

With this in mind, I immediately fell on my sword, replying-all, “Nice catch on ‘kit,’ Trevor.  I certainly wobbled over my own line there.”  But even though I agreed with him, several members of the club stepped forward to defend “kit.”  Here are some salient comments.  (I won’t bother identifying the correspondents other than to give each of them his/her own text color so you can tell them apart.)

è Here in Kiwiland ‘kit’ is not a hipster term. No one would call riding clothing (or sporting uniform of any kind) anything but ‘kit’. Even to my still somewhat Yankee ears ‘kit’ sounds absolutely common.
è Newb.
è Curmudgeon.
è As to “kit” and “curmudgeon,” might I suggest a dictionary?
è I was being economical! And I do have a dictionary. Also, “curmudgeon” was a polite form for what I really wanted to call you.
è Sounds like something you need to discuss with your therapist.
è Hold on a sec, I’m still trying to find “newb” in the dictionary…
è Newbie or noob is old prep school talk for the “new boy.” As far as I can tell from my OED, “new boy” likely goes back to Chaucer.
è I like and use the term kit. What other one-word term is there that works better? (No, MB, “costume” doesn’t count!)
è The convenience of “kit” is illusory. Just what is it? It isn’t just jersey and shorts. It’s everything and not everybody has the same stuff. My recollection from listening to British sports announcers is that they use the word correctly, as in “that’s a nice bit of kit.” It’s used specifically, not generally. If you’re going to buy a cycling kit, what are you buying? If you bring your racing kit with you, what’s in it? Glasses, helmet, sunblock,…? It goes beyond what you wear.
è I took a break from cycling from about 1999 to 2008. Before 1999 I had never heard the word “kit” when referring to cycling clothing. It was always a “jersey” and “shorts”. When I returned in 2008, the whole outfit was a ‘kit”. “Kit” still sounds dumb to me, but I use the word because I think I am supposed to.
è Do people (or hipsters) prefer ‘strip’?
è Okay, I’ll bite.  “Strip” is short for what? Strip joint, strip mall? And don’t think I haven’t noticed the single quotation marks. By using them, you’ve made both our points, I think.
è I did not mean to offend anyone. The word “kit” is not dumb. I’m the dummy.  Since the shorts and jersey, indeed the whole cycling get-up, are now one (dashing!) matching ensemble, a word is needed.
è I think you’re missing much of the point of this list if you fail to offend at least one recipient.  I think kit sounds dumb, too.

A question of motive

To me, the fundamental question of whether or not it’s okay to say “kit” centers around motive.  Are we trying to sound Euro, or not?  The difficulty is that we cannot know each person’s motive in using this word, and frankly, I doubt many of us bother to question our own motives in adopting one word or another.  Meanwhile, when we use a word, we participate in all its connotations whether we like it or not.  We are not, usually, at liberty to explain our motives.

The first respondent I quoted above is a American expatriate residing in New Zealand.  I have no doubt that “kit” is a totally innocuous word there (as are his single quotation marks, per Trevor’s comment).  The reason “kit” perks the American ear is that it’s one of those British words that has only recently crossed the Atlantic, and isn’t in widespread use beyond our cycling vernacular.  For such a term to become ubiquitous even within such a vernacular takes time, and may not happen if the term isn’t particularly useful.

Here’s an example of how that works.  Consider the word “jersey.”   Absolutely everybody who wears a jersey calls it a jersey.  This is a very useful word because it differentiates between a basic t-shirt and that funny Lycra thing with the zipper in front and the pockets in back.  I cannot think of a single effective synonym for “jersey.”  Use of this word is so entrenched (having been in wide use when I started cycling, in 1981), most people don’t even know its etymology—that it’s named after Jersey, the largest of the islands in the English Channel.

Consider the correspondent above who said, “I use the word [kit] because I think I am supposed to,” even though she personally finds it dumb.  She wants to fit in, and the question is, who has the authority—and the right—to make this word, or any word, into a cultural signifier that tells whether someone is “in” or “out”?  Positioning yourself as an authority and throwing around a word like “kit” is, to me, a distasteful act.  (A cyclist doing so might be said to “velominate,” if I may coin a term.)  Of course, it’s dangerous to reproach anyone on these grounds because we can’t know who is promoting a term versus merely (and sometimes reluctantly) adopting it.

Sometimes will I use an uncommon word instead of a familiar one if doing so increases exactitude.  Consider “twee,” which I used above.  My American Heritage Dictionary flags this word as “Chiefly British.”  Uncommon as it may be in American English, I doubt anybody uses it just to seem more British or more Euro.  “Twee” is free of trans-Atlantic cultural baggage, because modern usage has morphed it and thus reduced its air of British-ness.  In the original parlance, “twee” meant “overly precious or nice” (it stems from an alteration of “tweet,” a baby-talk alteration of “sweet”).  But when modern Americans use “twee,”  we keep the sense of precious but drop the sense of sweet; quite often, we use “twee” to flag instances of hipster affectation.  (Check out if you don’t believe me.)  The more this word evolves on the American tongue, the further behind it leaves its “chiefly British” air.

In the absence of such evolution, and in a case where a word’s usage is restricted to a subset of a subset of society (e.g., the more cutting-edge members of the cycling crowd), we must ask ourselves:  can a somewhat useful but chiefly British term be used innocently by an American  without opening the door to accusations of affectation?  Or to put it more simply, is it twee to say “kit”?

How efficient is “kit”?

The key to solving this riddle, I think, is to weight the utility of “kit” against the inescapable fact of being a cultural vanguard by using it in the U.S.  If the utility is bulletproof, the word is bound to gain wider adoption and will, over time, cease to be a cultural signifier.

So how useful is “kit”?  There’s no question that it’s convenient, being a single syllable and such a short word.  But where language is concerned, let’s not confuse convenience with efficiency.  Yes, “kit” is easy to write and easy to type, but having written a blog post called “Down with Convenience!” I can’t bring myself to care about ease alone.  After all, saving labor is also the justification for going out in public dressed in the sweatpants you wore to bed, which practice I totally disapprove of (unless you’re a gorgeous UC SantaBarbara coed who makes all attire look great).

The point of language is to express yourself with precision, and educated people can be precise without being verbose.  That’s the whole point of having a large vocabulary.  It is more efficient to use the word “twee,” for example, than to use a paragraph worth of words to explain exactly why it bothers you when college grads get written up in the local style magazine for their online storefront selling locally-made macramé caddies for their college roommate’s deluxe line of handmade, gluten-free moleskin notebooks.

So does “kit” do a significantly better job than “jersey and shorts,” “bike clothing,” or “overdue Voler order”?  Not necessarily.  As Trevor points out, there isn’t a single, unified meaning of “kit,” since we all have different stuff; thus, it’s not nearly as useful a word as “jersey.”  On the other hand, as another correspondent rightly pointed out, “kit” does uniquely connote “one (dashing) matching ensemble,” in a way “bike clothing” does not.  Indeed, I never heard (or used) the word “kit” until it became common for bike clubs to order all their clothing—including socks, arm warmers, vests, and even gloves—from a single manufacturer so it can be customized with colors and logos that create a uniform.  If I throw on a pair of plain black shorts from company X and a plain blue jersey from company Y, that’s not really a kit.

So, perhaps “kit” is useful … but is it useful enough that we should use it, even at the risk of sounding like poseurs?  My answer is, we don’t need to determine this at all:  we can slip between the horns of the dilemma and trot out a totally new word, devoid of wannebe-Euro overtones, that is as precise—or more precise—than kit.

A perfect word?

During the e-mail debate, correspondents did trot out alternatives to “kit.”  (Speaking of precise words, maybe “debate” isn’t the perfect word for that protracted correspondence.  At  a post-ride refreshment stop, one of my teammates described it as an “e-mail shit-storm,” for which I chided him, because my thirteen-year-old daughter, herself a budding cyclist, was present.  Another teammate said, “Right, you shouldn’t call it that.  It was more of a shit-tornado.”  Did my daughter say, “Thanks for the visual on that”?  No, I beat her to the punch.)

“Strip” was proposed, along with “livery” and “clobber.”  The benefit of these is that, being virtually unknown in U.S. cycling parlance, they won’t send any untoward cultural signals.  But the use of “strip” as a noun doesn’t even appear in my six-inch-thick Webster’s unabridged dictionary.  The guy who suggested “strip” is the New Zealander, whose Collins English dictionary (likely published for the New Zealand market) defines strip as “the clothes worn by the members of a team, esp a football team.”  The downside of “strip” is that, being unknown here, it’s useless except as a private joke. 

Similarly, I’ve often promoted my brother’s favorite term, “ABCs,” an acronym for “Angry Biker Clothes,” but to understand this, you have to know the term “angry biker,” meaning any uptight, aggro racer-type, but of course this term isn’t widely known outside the Albert family.

But wait!  There was one term thrown about in the e-mail thread that I really like, notwithstanding the fact that it was both introduced and rejected in a single parenthetical aside:  “(No, MB, costume doesn’t count! )”

What’s wrong with “costume”?  The more I contemplate it, the more I like it.  At face value, bicycling clothing fits within the basic definition of costume (“a style of dress characteristic of a particular country, period, or people”).  It’s true that other definitions bleed over (e.g., “an outfit or disguise worn on Mardi Gras, Halloween, or a masquerade”), and it’s also true that “costume” makes us think of superheroes.  This isn’t necessarily inaccurate, though; after all, if you took the typical Lycra cycling getup and added a cape, you wouldn’t be far from Superman or Batman (other than the lack of boots).

If you think about it, the sense of an outfit worn to a masquerade fits perfectly, because the vast majority of us cyclists really are just pretending.  Our participation in the sport, though perfectly valid and worthwhile, is really just our best facsimile of the professional peloton.  Club racers invariably have this aching desire to look just like the pros, even if we fully grasp the vast distance between them and us.

You may argue that, in light of these ideas, using “costume” would be a form of self-mockery.  I would agree—but then, sometimes self-mockery is a good thing.  Consider the song “Yankee Doodle.”  This song, as we all know (and as neatly described by Wikipedia), “was sung by British military officers to mock the disheveled, disorganized colonial ‘Yankees,’” until “the Americans embraced the song and made it their own, turning it back on those who had used it to mock them.”

Likewise, by using a term that mocks our own pretentiousness, we bicyclists beat others to the punch.  Who are these “others”?  I can think of plenty:  the non-bike people who think we look silly and/or act overly self-important; the casual bike people who laugh at our aspirations toward Euro-cool; the bike club curmudgeons who rescue us when we start to velominate. 

Brits and Kiwis, along with Americans who are lazy and/or blasé, can keep on saying “kit,” but I’m going with “costume” from now on.

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