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October 18, 1998 - Baseball Terms - 2002-02-12

INTRO: With the 93rd Major League baseball World Series underway this weekend at Yankee Stadium in New York, Wordmasters Rosanne Skirble and Avi Arditti step 'up to the plate' to explore the language of baseball.

MUSIC: "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"

AA: 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' has become the national anthem of baseball and the song that puts us on the playing field, so to speak, as we watch the New York Yankees and the San Diego Padres play in the World Series. And 'right off the bat' we've got to thank baseball for enriching American English. I'm Avi Arditti.

RS: And I'm Rosanne Skirble. We learned from Maggie Sokolik, a linguist and baseball fan at the University of California at Berkeley, that some 25-hundred baseball idioms have worked their way into American English.


MAGGIE SOKOLIK: "The idea of a 'raincheck' started in baseball and now we have it for shopping and all kinds of terminology. Someone who is 'out of left field' or is a 'screwball,' up at bat or 'off base.' 'on deck is going to be next in the 'lineup.'"

AA: "In fact we are both 'southpaws' here, and I didn't realize until I read your paper that the term for left handedness comes from baseball. Can you explain that?"

MAGGIE SOKOLIK: "Yeah, it actually comes from the orientation of the (baseball) diamond. I believe (it was) in Yankee Stadium where the left hand of the pitcher actually faced south. So, a left handed pitcher became know as a 'southpaw,' and it got generalized to the whole population as left handed people became 'southpaws.'"

RS: "How do you account for the fact that this vocabulary goes well beyond the sport? We have the essential (baseball words like) ball and bat and pitch and base and field and strike and hit. How do you account for the fact that these go well beyond the sport and have to do with every aspect of our lives?"

MAGGIE SOKOLIK: "Well, many of the important things in our lives get translated into metaphors. We see things as other things. And so baseball has become a really important metaphor because of its cultural place in our history. And so when we think of life as being like a game, we think of the baseball terminology that goes along with the gamesman-like attitude. When we think of life as being a series of sequences, we concentrate on the time aspect, then we think about who is 'up next' and who is 'on deck,' and who is 'at bat.' And so these metaphors serve to help us organize the way we see the world, and because baseball has been so important in our cultural history it provides a really interesting metaphor, a different way, a more interesting way than just saying that this person is 'going to speak next,' or it is 'his turn next' and provides color interest and indeed the really important cultural aspect what makes American English unique."

AA: "Is it possible for an American to go through a full day without using at least one baseball metaphor either knowingly or unknowingly?"

MAGGIE SOKOLIK: "It would be a very interesting experiment to find, but I would be surprised if someone made it through an entire day of speaking under normal circumstances and didn't use at least one baseball metaphor."

AA: Maggie Sokolik of the University of California at Berkeley says don't worry if you don't know a thing about baseball. You can figure out what a lot of its idioms mean through the context of what's being said.

RS: We hope that we haven't 'thrown to many curves' in your direction today. Next week we take a look into the Wordmaster mailbag and read some of your letters. Remember, we'll send a VOA souvenir to every listener whose letter we read on the air.

AA: With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.