Where the Heck is “Back of the Pack” Anyway?

Posted on October 21, 2012

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Dan Kuch finished second in the 2012 Blue Water Triathlon in Arizona today, after coming out the swim leg “in the back of the pack.”

Rene Rast was bumped and forced “to the back of the pack” during the Porsche Carrera Cup in Hockenheim, but rallied for the win.

Michael Waltrip waited at the “back of the pack” for most of the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 before making a move on the leaders that ended in a crash.

But where exactly is “the back of the pack”?

The question became pertinent after a headline in The Lantern, Ohio State’s student newspaper, proclaimed that then men’s and women’s cross-country teams finished “in back of pack” at the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational last week. The women finished 33rd out of more than 40 entrants, and the men were 39th out of 45.

If you clicked on the link, you will no longer find the words “back of pack” in the headline, so inflammatory were they for some involved in the team, who took the phrase to mean last. And that is where my dilemma lies.

I don’t know if it does mean finishing last.

There is no listing for “back of the pack” in my Slang and euphemism Dictionary, and I could find nary a listing online. When I asked some of my most accomplished students their perspective, I got answers like “back third of the field,” “back quarter of the field,” and “last place.”

If you apply the first definition, the men’s and women’s teams fit the bill. With the second definition only the men would qualify. On the third, neither one.

When J.R. Hildebrand qualified 17th out of 27 cars for the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma, the Marin Independent Journal proclaimed he was “in back of pack”. But when Thoroughbred Gemologist faded from first to last–literally the final horse to cross the wire–in the Haskell Memorial, NJ.com said he faded “from first to back of pack”.

So which is it?

No one likes to have their failings pointed out, and in sport it is truly a matter of semantics to negotiate what euphemism is more or less accurate when it comes to losing. A loss is a loss–and it feels like crap.

But in English, words have meaning and those meanings have power to shape thought.

So how far back are you in the back of the pack?

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