I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: with
Major League Baseball's championship series delayed by rain -- no World
Series game has ever been suspended before -- we thought we'd step up
to the plate and reprise a segment from several years ago. We
interviewed a linguist at Berkeley about the many baseball-inspired
terms in American English.
RS: But first, in case you're keeping
score, the Philadelphia Phillies lead three games to one in their
best-of-seven series against the Tampa Bay Rays. Game five is scheduled
to resume Wednesday night.
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
MAGGIE SOKOLIK: "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
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."
MAGGIE SOKOLIK: "Exactly."
"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
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.'"
"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. Do you find that with these players
coming to the United States, that they're also bringing a new
vocabulary into baseball?"
MAGGIE 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.
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
AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can find all of our programs at
voanews.com/wordmaster. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.