Word Of The Month: Baseball

In honor of the return of the boys of summer, the word of the month for April is:

Baseball n.; a game between two teams of nine players each, under the direction of a manager, played on an enclosed field in accordance with the Official Baseball Rules, under jurisdiction of one or more umpires. Originally a name for the British game of rounders, the term dates to at least 1744 when John Newberry included a poem about the game in a children’s book. The name was applied to the modern game in 1845, when Alexander Cartwright first codified the rules of the game and formed the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. (Contrary to myth, Abner Doubleday had nothing to do with the game.)

Of course, the word baseball is not enough to justify an entire Word of the Month article. The word on its own doesn’t reflect the impact that baseball has had on the English language. Few other activities, and certainly no other sport, have contributed so many jargon words to the general vocabulary. War and sex are probably the only other human endeavors that have had a greater impact on the language—I much prefer baseball to war, but the national pastime does run a close second behind sex (except perhaps in October when baseball tends to be more important).

The following is a partial list of some baseball jargon words that have made their way into the general lexicon. Most have their origins in the game, but a few listed here originated elsewhere but didn’t become common until baseball popularized them:

Ace n.; an expert, the best at a particular activity; from cards, the ace being the highest value card; popularized by the baseball sense of a team’s best pitcher. Baseball lore assigns the origin of the term to Asa Brainard, who won 56 of 57 games in 1869 playing for the Cincinnati Red Stockings. But there is no evidence that the term comes from Brainard. The term is not found in baseball use until 1902; the sense of ace meaning a dependable person dates to 1848.

A Team n.; an elite group; from the baseball sense of a grouping of a club’s best players for practice purposes.

Back-to-back adj.; events following one another without break (c. 1900); from baseball slang, as in back-to-back homers.

Ballpark figure n.; a rough estimate; first appears as in the ballpark in 1962; by 1967, ballpark figure had appeared.

Bat a thousand v.phr.; perfect performance; from batting average, a 1.000 average being a hit for every at bat.

Bean n.; the head; from baseball slang (c. 1905); also v. to hit on the head, particularly with a baseball.

Bench n.; those not participating (1891); from the bench in the dugout where team members not currently in the lineup sit; also v. to remove from play, to send to the bench.

Benchwarmer n.; a non-participant (1889); from a player who keeps the bench warm by sitting on it.

Bleachers n.; backless, uncovered, unreserved seating for spectators (1888); from jocular reference to fans bleaching in the sun; the “bleaching boards” was in use for spectator seating as early as 1836.

Bonehead n.; a stupid person or play (1908); from baseball slang, someone with a solid skull instead of brains. Also boner. First used in reference to the infamous Merkle’s Boner of 23 September 1908, when NY Giant Fred Merkle was on first base and Moose McCormick was on third with the score tied in the bottom of the ninth. Al Bridwell singled to the outfield and McCormick crossed home plate, which should have scored the winning run. Merkle, however, ran to the dugout without touching second base, allowing a force out that invalidated the run. Chicago went on to win the game and the pennant.

Breaks, the n.; good luck or fortune (1908); from baseball slang.

Bronx cheer n.; a sputtering sound made with the tongue protruding through the lips, used as a show of disgust and contempt, a raspberry (1927); allegedly a practice begun or commonly used by Yankees fans.

Bush adj.; amateurish, inferior (1905); from baseball slang for the minor leagues, a reference to the uncomfortable and primitive conditions in which minor league players live and play; also busher, Bush League.

Charley horse n.; a muscle cramp or pain (1886); from baseball slang; who Charley was, is not known.

Choke v.; to play poorly in a clutch situation (1937); from baseball slang.

Clutch n.; a critical or key situation (1929); for statistical purposes, a clutch is defined as a situation in the seventh inning or later where the lead is three runs or less; the baseball term may come from mechanics, where engaging a clutch allows parts to move and failure of a clutch causes faulty operation.

Doubleheader n.; paired or two consecutive events (1896); popularized by the baseball term meaning two games played back-to-back where spectators can see both games for a single admission price; originally a railroad term for single train with two engines; use of doubleheaders saved on labor and was an issue in the US railroad strike of 1877.

Fan n.; a spectator, particularly one devoted to a particular team (1887); probably a clipped form of fanatic; often thought to come from fancy or fancier, but there is no strong evidence of this.

First base n.; the first step in an endeavor or activity; the first kiss between a dating couple; figurative use dates to at least 1928; from baseball, the first stage in an attempt to score is to reach first base.

Gate money/receipts n.; admission fees (1867); first used in reference to the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first professional baseball team.

Go to bat for v.phr.; to make a plea on someone’s behalf (1939); from pinch hitting.

Ground rules n.; rules or procedures set out in advance; from baseball jargon for rules particular to a ballpark or temporary situation, e.g., when Vice President Hubert Humphrey attended a 1965 World Series game, one of the ground rules was that if a batted ball struck a Secret Service agent standing on the field, the ball would remain in play.

Heads up adj.; alert, quick thinking (1934); from baseball slang. There are some 19th century literal uses of the term, meaning to hold one’s head erect, but the sense of alertness stems from baseball.

“Hit ‘em where they ain’t” c.phr.; rallying cry; from William “Wee Willie” Keeler’s explanation as to why he hit .432 in 1897, “I keep my eyes clear and I hit ‘em where they ain’t.”

Home run n.; big-scoring play, a clear success (1856); surprisingly this term doesn’t originate in baseball, instead baseball adopted it from cricket where it means a ball hit out of bounds, scoring multiple runs. But the popularity of the term and its extended usages are due almost entirely to baseball.

Jinx n.; a person or thing that causes bad luck (1911); also a verb (1912) meaning to cause bad luck; baseball popularized, but didn’t originate this term. 

Ladies day n.; promotional event offering reduced price or free admission to women (1883); the practice originated in baseball.

Left field n.; the left side of the outfield as viewed from home plate (1854); the position name dates to the earliest days of baseball; out of/from left field c.phr.; unusual, irrational, unexpected (1947); probably from the idea that because of the distance, a throw from left field is not expected to reach first base in time to put the batter out; out in left field c.phr.; odd, bizarre (1930s); of unknown origin, three major theories contend, 1) because of the power of right-handed batters, the left fielder played the deepest, 2) the left field bleachers were the least desirable seats, 3) behind left field of Chicago’s West Side Ballpark stood the Neuropsychiatric Institute of the University Illinois College of Medicine. Players and fans who behaved oddly were deemed to have escaped from institute.

Muff v.; to err (1846); another cricket term popularized in the US by baseball; perhaps from the image of dropping a ball as if it were a hot muffin.

Off base adj.; out of line, operating from a bad premise (1936); from a runner taking a lead from the base, risking a pick-off for an increased chance of successfully stealing.

On deck adj.; next in line, ready (1867); baseball borrowed the term from nautical jargon, but the sense of being next is distinctly baseball’s. The original positions were at bat, on deck, and in the hold. In the hold (or hole) is rarely heard anymore.

On the ball adj.; alert, at one’s best (1911); from a pitcher “putting speed/spin/spit on the ball.”

Phenom n.; rookie of exceptional ability, a prodigy (1881); this clipping was first used in baseball, although use of the full word phenomenon in other fields predates it.

Play-by-play n.; detailed verbal account, running commentary (1912); baseball jargon for an account (originally written, now broadcast) of each play of the game.

Rain check n.; postponed or deferred acceptance (1884); from guaranteed admission back into the park when the game is called on account of rain.

Rhubarb n.; a fight, argument, or altercation (1934); originally theatrical slang for a word repeated to simulate the murmuring of a crowd; made famous by Red Barber and other baseball broadcasters.

Right off the bat c.phr.; immediately (1909); a metaphor for the speed with which a ball leaves the bat.

Rookie n.; neophyte (1892); actually originally an army term, a corruption of recruit; in baseball use by 1909; baseball popularized the word in the US.

Root v.; to cheer (1887); the origin is a bit obscure, but it is definitely a baseball term in origin; probably from cheering fans stamping their feet hard, as if they were trying to dig a hole in the ground.

Screwball n. and adj.; crazy, eccentric (1928); a baseball pitch thrown with an inward rotation of the hand and arm; NY Giant Christy Mathewson was the first to make the pitch famous, calling it a fade-away. Later, fellow Giant Carl Hubbell revived the pitch in 1928 and took to calling it a screwball. According to Hubbell, the pitch was named that by minor league catcher Earl Walgamot, who said it was the “screwiest thing I ever saw.” There is an older sense of the term from cricket (1866), but given the well-publicized debut of the pitch by Hubbell it does not appear that cricket is the source of this particular baseball term. 

Showboat v.; to show off (1942); baseball took this term for a riverboat where drama and music were performed and turned it into a verb.

Shut out n.; a game or endeavor where the loser is prevented from scoring (1881); the baseball jargon derives from horse racing, where late bettors are shut out at the window; the sense of a scoreless loss is pure baseball.

Smash hit n.; a great success (1923); the baseball origins of this one are obvious, a hard-hit ball.

Southpaw n.; a left-handed person (1885); originally baseball jargon for a left-handed pitcher, probably from the fact that baseball diamonds are usually arranged so the batters would face east, so they don’t have to look into the afternoon sun. The pitcher’s left hand, or paw, is therefore on the southern side.

Strike out v.; to fail (1866); another one that obviously comes from baseball; also the c.phr. three strikes and you’re out.

Switch hitter n.; a person who alternates between two radically different styles or orientations, esp. sexually, a bisexual person (1938); from baseball jargon for a batter who hits both right and left handed. The baseball term arises rather late, probably because switch-hitting was relatively rare until the 1950s.

Warm-up n. and v.; exercise or practice before an athletic contest (1893); from the practice thrown by pitchers before entering a game.

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