Most sports fans have a favorite team and a backup. Sometimes the backup team’s from a favorite city. Or maybe if your favorite team is in the Eastern Conference, for example, you’ll have a backup in the Western Conference.
For many years, the Toronto Maple Leafs were my backup hockey team, No. 2 behind the Montreal Canadiens. Why Toronto? Good question. Thanks for asking. To be honest, I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into it. I liked that they were in Canada, because that seemed right for hockey. I liked, too, that they were part of the Original Six NHL teams, so they had a great deal of history. Also, and probably most important, I liked their colors: blue and white. Classic.
It occurred to me more than once that Leafs didn’t sound quite right, and I wondered why they weren’t the Toronto Maple Leaves (which also doesn’t sound quite right). Turns out there is an answer. Maple Leafs is a class of word similar to still life, leadfoot, low-life, and Walkman. What Steven Pinker calls headlessness in his outstanding book The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language.
A headless word is an exceptional item that, for one reason or another, differs in some property from its rightmost element, the one it would be based on if it were like ordinary words. A simple example of a headless word is a low-life—not a kind of life at all but a kind of person, namely one who leads a low life. …
As for the Maple Leafs, the noun being pluralized is not leaf, the unit of foliage, but a noun based on the name Maple Leaf, Canada’s national symbol. A name is not the same thing as a noun. … Therefore the noun a Maple Leaf (referring to, say, the goalie) must be headless, because it is a noun based on a word that is not a noun. And a noun that goes not get its nounhood from one of its components cannot get an irregular plural from that component either; hence it defaults to the regular form Maple Leafs. … Indeed, the explanation apples to all nouns based on names:
I’m sick of dealing with all the Mickey Mouses in this administration [not Mickey Mice]
Hollywood has been relying on movies based on comic book heroes and their sequels, like the three Supermans and the two Batmans [not Supermen and Batmen]
We’re having Julia Child and her husband over for dinner tonight. You know, the Childs are great cooks. [not the Children]
This all makes sense to me, and I approve. At any rate, now that I live in Chicago, I’ve moved Toronto down to No. 3 and promoted the Blackhawks to the backup spot. Sorry, Leafs. Don’t take it personally.