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Hail Mary idiom question for non-Americans


Ormond
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The book club I am part of is reading Andy Weir's Project Hail Mary this month. The title uses the American idiom "Hail Mary" with its meaning of "a final desperate attempt to solve a problem even though it has only a very small chance of success."

The idiom comes from American football. Its original use was in the phrase "Hail Mary pass", for a long forward pass made by a team which is losing in a final effort to somehow win the game. It was first used in the 1930s at Notre Dame University in Indiana. Over the next 30 years the term spread to football teams at other Roman Catholic universities in the USA. In the late 1960s and early 1970s it spread outside of the Roman Catholic community because of its use by famous football quarterback Roger Staubach (11 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys), who is himself a Roman Catholic though his college career was at the US Naval Academy. 

I can't find clear evidence for when Americans started to take the term outside of football and began using it for last-ditch desperate attempts in any context, but it was being used that way in 1990.

In Weir's novel, he seems to me to be saying the Project was named by a Dutch woman who is the head of an international task force trying to solve the problem of the sun's suddnely being depleted of energy. What I'd like to know here is if readers of this book outside of the USA understand the "desperate last-ditch effort" meaning of "Hail Mary" here. Is this phrase being used by people in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand with this meaning these days, or do they still think of it as something only an American would say? And does it make any sense for a Dutch person, even one fluent in English, to have given such a name to an international project? 

 

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8 minutes ago, Ormond said:

In Weir's novel, he seems to me to be saying the Project was named by a Dutch woman who is the head of an international task force trying to solve the problem of the sun's suddnely being depleted of energy. What I'd like to know here is if readers of this book outside of the USA understand the "desperate last-ditch effort" meaning of "Hail Mary" here. Is this phrase being used by people in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand with this meaning these days, or do they still think of it as something only an American would say? And does it make any sense for a Dutch person, even one fluent in English, to have given such a name to an international project?

I'm not sure I can recall ever hearing anyone use the term here in the UK but I'd expect most people to know what is meant by it in general terms even if they don't get the American football origin. Pretty much everyone who's fluent in English consumes a lot of American film/television/books etc these days and it's pretty commonly used. I can't speak to whether a Dutch person would use it but in general I tend to find people who have English as a second language often use more American terms than people from English speaking countries because they've practiced their English watching American films and tv shows.

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It's used in English sports at least, I've seen it used to refer to low-percentage passes (not necessarily last-second, mind) in football for at least 15-20 years. It's not as formally defined or famous but people who follow football would generally know what you mean by it. I definitely knew what the novel would roughly be about immediately upon seeing the title. 

Can't speak for the Dutch, but I think ljkeane's right that it's not a stretch to imagine a fluent ESL speaker using American idioms.  

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1 hour ago, Luzifer's right hand said:

I honestly had no idea that it has a non-religious meaning. I have not read the book though.

Andy certainly had the religious meaning in mind as well - Hail Mary full of Ryland Grace?

I'm familiar with the idiom, and have never had any interest in sport. The real question is whether the Dutch woman was sufficiently dedicated to bad puns to

Spoiler

commit murder and jeopardise the future of all life on Earth.

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20 hours ago, Ormond said:

The book club I am part of is reading Andy Weir's Project Hail Mary this month. The title uses the American idiom "Hail Mary" with its meaning of "a final desperate attempt to solve a problem even though it has only a very small chance of success."

The idiom comes from American football. Its original use was in the phrase "Hail Mary pass", for a long forward pass made by a team which is losing in a final effort to somehow win the game. It was first used in the 1930s at Notre Dame University in Indiana. Over the next 30 years the term spread to football teams at other Roman Catholic universities in the USA. In the late 1960s and early 1970s it spread outside of the Roman Catholic community because of its use by famous football quarterback Roger Staubach (11 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys), who is himself a Roman Catholic though his college career was at the US Naval Academy. 

I can't find clear evidence for when Americans started to take the term outside of football and began using it for last-ditch desperate attempts in any context, but it was being used that way in 1990.

In Weir's novel, he seems to me to be saying the Project was named by a Dutch woman who is the head of an international task force trying to solve the problem of the sun's suddnely being depleted of energy. What I'd like to know here is if readers of this book outside of the USA understand the "desperate last-ditch effort" meaning of "Hail Mary" here. Is this phrase being used by people in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand with this meaning these days, or do they still think of it as something only an American would say? And does it make any sense for a Dutch person, even one fluent in English, to have given such a name to an international project? 

 

I would say the lady in question (I've read the book but can't remember her name) could have been influenced by American culture. She could have visited the US enough times to adopt such idioms. Also, while she named the project, being the leader, wouldn't she have accepted ideas from others about the name?

I don't remember if I heard the term watching American movies before moving to the US, but when I did hear it after starting to watch American football, I was never confused. Maybe I just put 2 and 2 together quickly. 

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21 hours ago, Luzifer's right hand said:

I honestly had no idea that it has a non-religious meaning. I have not read the book though.

Yup, another speaker of English as a foreign language here, and I would only connect it with religion. The only other time I heard it used was in this song, and as that is basically just an ironic collection of sports-related metaphors, I didn't really understand it, but also didn't pay attention to this one exactly.

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On 10/25/2022 at 6:08 PM, Ormond said:

What I'd like to know here is if readers of this book outside of the USA understand the "desperate last-ditch effort" meaning of "Hail Mary" here. Is this phrase being used by people in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand with this meaning these days, or do they still think of it as something only an American would say? And does it make any sense for a Dutch person, even one fluent in English, to have given such a name to an international project? 

I do know the meaning of the idiom, though I didn't know the history behind it. As far as how often it's used, I've never heard it outside of movies/TV shows or, very rarely, some sport journalists or pundits.

Having worked in international teams since college, I'd say that if the project is an international one, then English would be the common language used by the team and it would make sense for the project to have an English language idiom as a name.

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I have heard of a 'Hail Mary attempt' in movies but not in connection with sports, but I'm not that interested in American sports anyway.

A Dutch person nowadays would be quite likely to be aware of American idioms I would say, as they watch American movies with subtitles in the Netherlands, but I'm not so sure about a 1930s Dutch person. They wouldn't have listened to radio programmes in English, and they used to be predominately Calvinist, i.e. strongly anti-Catholic, so a 'Hail Mary' wouldn't be part of their experience in daily life. The Catholic Netherlands became Belgium in 1830.

eta: In German, I don't think we have an equivalent for Hail Mary attempt. The only remotely related word I could think of was 'Himmelfahrtskommando' (suicide mission, literally 'ascension to heaven mission').

Edited by Prue
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