Book Review: Dickson’s New Baseball Dictionary

Few pastimes have contributed as much to the language as baseball. All sports have their own jargon and occasionally some of those jargon words make their way into general speech. But baseball is different in the sheer number or words and phrases that it has contributed to the language.

Dickson’s revised version of his baseball dictionary contains over 7,000 entries, from A (as in Class A ball) to zurdo (Spanish for lefty). Most jargon dictionaries simply record the definitions of terms. Dickson goes well beyond this. He identifies archaic and obsolete terms, cross-references related terms, includes etymologies, and for many terms gives the first known use, notes on usage, and quotations of actual use.

The extended notes on etymology and first use are a researcher’s dream. Dickson gives cogent and concise explanations that are backed by verifiable citations. Baseball fans will enjoy the historical minutiae that he includes, and wordsmiths will delight in the detailed and verifiable source material he provides.

Dickson is not shy about extended entries when they’re justified. The entry for fan, for example, runs to two full pages, not counting illustrations. Most of this text is devoted to a discussion of the word’s etymology. (It turns out the best evidence is that the term was coined in 1896 as a clipped form of fanatic. It has a distinct baseball origin. There is considerable use of fancy and fancier in British sporting circles for decades prior to this, but no one has found an earlier, or non-baseball, use of the clipped form fan.)

Along the way, the reader will encounter some surprises. Many fans of the game, for example, will know that the phrase the boys of summer, comes from a 1972 Roger Kahn book about the Brooklyn Dodgers. But few will know that Kahn takes his title from a Dylan Thomas poem (which is not about baseball).

There’s a lot here for the language generalist, but those who will truly appreciate the book are baseball fans. While baseball’s impact on the English language has been deep, most of the 7,000 entries are very baseball-specific jargon terms. They range from fairly unimaginative terms like “long reliever” to the mysterious “fungo” (a practice fly ball, of obscure origin with multiple competing explanations of its origin).

This “new” 1999 edition is an update of Dickson’s 1988 baseball dictionary. It adds some 2,000 entries and includes some 100 softball terms. It also includes a new thesaurus, which allows the reader to quickly identify synonyms. (A single can also be called a bagger, base hit, baser, bingle, bingo, one-bagger, one-base hit, one-sacker, safety, and solo shot.) The book also includes an annotated bibliography that is a one-stop shop for baseball terminology source material.

Dickson’s research is generally superb and incorporates some the latest research available up to the 1999 date of publication. The book is not without errors, however, there are occasional typos, like Gary instead of Greg Maddux, and some Dickson’s facts about 19th century baseball are confused (understandable, records from that period are incomplete and often contradictory). Also, some of his dates can be antedated quite easily by consulting the OED or Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang—but then again, in other cases Dickson has citations that antedate those found in these dictionaries. And where Dickson makes an error in date of first use it’s usually by only a year or two. Overall, the errors in Dickson’s work are few and far between.

For anyone interested in the language of baseball, Dickson’s work is the place to start—and for most purposes will be sufficient for the finish as well.

Paperback. 576 pages. February 1999. $20.00. Harvest Books; ISBN: 0156005808.

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