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April 29, 2001 - Baseball Idioms - 2002-01-31

MUSIC: "Talkin' Baseball [Willie, Mickey & 'The Duke']"/Terry Cashman

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble. This week on Wordmaster, we answer a question from a Japanese listener about the many baseball idioms in American English.

RS: Asako Kadonaga in Osaka gives the examples of "right off the bat," "ballpark figure" and "touch all bases." Our linguist friend Maggie Sokolik at the University of California at Berkeley says we can thank sportswriters for many terms like these that are now part of everyday speech.

AA: Baseball started in the eighteen-hundreds, and Maggie Sokolik says writers made up colorful ways to describe the game. After all, in those days, there was no television to watch the national pastime!

RS: A lot of those phrases hit a home run with Americans, so today even people who don't follow baseball might still talk about doing something "right off the bat."


"And if you can imagine a baseball striking the bat, that instant that things happen, things go very quickly, so if you need to do something fast, you might want to do it right off the bat. Similarly now if you have a large plan, say in business, in which you need to accomplish several tasks, you might tell your colleagues that you've 'touched all the bases,' you've contacted people -- you've 'covered your bases' as well, that is, you've prepared adequately."

RS: Which means that you've probably gone beyond rough estimates, or "ballpark figures."


SOKOLIK: "Often if we're talking, and perhaps we're negotiating, perhaps we might say, 'you know, we're not even in the same ballpark,' meaning my figures are so different from yours that we're not even communicating about them."

AA: "Why a ballpark?"

SOKOLIK: "Well, we have this notion of a ballpark as being a sort of rough area. The playing field doesn't really have a definite boundary. The diamond itself does, but what extends beyond the diamond doesn't have a specific dimension assigned to it. Similarly with time, an inning can be five minutes, an inning could be fifty minutes, it just depends on how long it takes to get all the outs in."

AA: "And it's still if you get three strikes you're out."

SOKOLIK: "Exactly."

AA: "And it's not just in baseball anymore. We hear that now in laws. I know in California, if you commit three serious crimes ..."

SOKOLIK: "Yes, three felonies and then I think it's a lifetime sentence after that. It 's call the 'three-strike law,' three strikes and you're in prison. I think a less happy baseball metaphor than most of them are."

RS: "Do you have a favorite baseball expression?"

SOKOLIK: "I think the ones that I like, there's a lot of baseball expressions that really focus on people making mistakes, because errors in baseball are sort of what make the game interesting and exciting and also make us scream and tear our hair out in the stands. So when you talk about people being 'off base' -- or 'way off base' in fact -- that means that they're really quite wrong. There's also the term, to call someone a 'screwball' which is a type of pitch, but also means that someone is sort of crazy and not thinking straight. If we talk about someone who's really capable, we talk about them being 'on the ball.'"

RS: "Do you see that our baseball vocabulary is evolving, especially since we are attracting athletes from outside the United States, from Central and South America, from Japan. Just today on the front page of the New York Times is an article about, um..."

AA: "Ichiro Suzuki, the top Japanese player who's now playing for the Seattle Mariners."

SOKOLIK: "For the Seattle Mariners!"

RS: "But do you find that with these players coming to the United States, that they're also bringing a new vocabulary into baseball?"

SOKOLIK: "Well, interestingly enough, not a lot, because the answer is that American baseball vocabulary has begun to travel overseas, so the language they bring with them is that which was exported to begin with."

AA: As far as creating new terms, Maggie Sokolik at the University of California at Berkeley says American baseball is in a slump. Still there are more baseball-related phrases out there than most people realize.

RS: In fact, University of Missouri Professor Gerald Cohen tells us the earliest citations for "jazz" had nothing to do with music. San Francisco newspaper writer "Scoop" Gleeson used the term "jazz" in nineteen-thirteen to describe enthusiasm and spirit on the baseball field.

RS: If you have a question about American English, bat it our way. Write to VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA or With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "You've Got to Hit the Right Lick"/Big Bill Broonzy