Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

The Bountiful Lexicon of Baseball, Part 2

Last week, in part one of our interview with author Paul Dickson, we talked about the work that went into the new edition of his Dickson Baseball Dictionary — a thousand-page monument to baseball's bottomless linguistic riches. Now in part two, Dickson discusses the diverse influences on the language of baseball, and how the sport has become a metaphorical source in politics and elsewhere.

VT: How do ballplayers themselves contribute to the language of baseball?

PD: The players, especially the modern ones, are as much a part of this as anybody else. You have Dennis Eckersley coming up with walk-off piece. That's when you score a run that ends the game, allowing you to walk off the field. Then it became a walk-off home run and walk-off single. You get these very playful things that show up.

Bugs Bunny changeup is one that I really like a lot. It's a pitch that just as it's entering the strike zone, as it's entering the wheelhouse, appears to stop momentarily. It's an illusion, but there's this momentary look of hesitation. And of course it throws the batter's timing off and he misses the ball by striking. Certain pitchers are alleged to have the ability to throw the Bugs Bunny changeup.

The etymology of that, as far as can be determined by the various people who have worked on it, is that it came from a 1946 Looney Tunes cartoon, in which Bugs Bunny is playing a group called the Gas House Gorillas and he throws the pitch. There's one pitch and it stops dead and he strikes out the side.

There are guys like Tug McGraw, who invented all these wonderful puns that have survived. He had the Peggy Lee fastball: "Is that all there is?"  It really wasn't a fastball. The Linda Ronstadt fastball, which was the one that blew by you ("Blue Bayou"). And they had the Jameson, which was a fastball that was straight and neat. Satchel Paige did the same thing: he invented these names for pitches, and some of them just hang in there.

I've interviewed a number of players for various books, and these guys are surprisingly smart. Even the ones without great education, they have to be canny, unless they're just all power. They have to achieve a certain canniness that allows them to be quite verbal. There are certain interviews that just stick in my head. Tug McGraw was one of them. I said, "Tug, how did you get the nickname?"  He said, "Well, my mother gave it to me while I was nursing." From that point on, it got better.

VT: You're also getting players from all over the country, many from more rural backgrounds. Has the language of baseball developed from regional or vernacular speech with players from different parts of the country coming together on professional teams?

PD: I think that's true, and I think even with the media, you still have regional variations. I'll find stuff from Canada that's different. I'll find something in some little part of the country because you're starting at a very local level. A lot of that still happens in baseball, even in softball. I wrote a book on softball, and there's tremendous variation in the way it's played. Sixteen-inch softball in Chicago, another form played in Louisiana. So despite everybody saying we've become homogenized, there are still places where we haven't.

VT: You say that nowadays a great source of linguistic diversity in baseball comes from other countries. What are some of the foreign influences on the language of baseball now?

PD: The Spanish-language influence is very much there. I think we have about 109 Spanish terms in the book. Zurdo, the last definition in the book, is the Spanish nickname for a "leftie."

From Japanese, there's doryoku, which means guts, courage and audacity. It's a certain kind of guts that the Japanese brought into the game. So you see certain terms, but only ones that transmit a different thought, a new thought that goes with the game. Historically, baseball has become a great borrower from other places. And you see a lot of these interesting terms coming out of other realms.

VT: Would you predict that this is the major growth area for the language of baseball, with languages like Japanese and Spanish having more and more of an influence?

PD: I think so. And as other countries get involved in the game, I think you're going to see more and more entries coming from other sources. Honkbal is in the book, which is the Dutch form of baseball. The Netherlands team in the World Baseball Classic recently did very, very well. There's a Finnish variation of baseball, pesäpallo, which is a very strange variation on baseball. You need a diagram to understand it because the base path is so strange. As Europe gets into baseball there's going to be more and more stuff coming out of other nations.

VT: The influence of baseball language on common parlance is enormous. It seems disproportionate to interest in the game these days, since other sports like football and basketball outpace it, in terms of general popularity. Why do you think that baseball continues to be such a steady source of metaphors and analogies?

PD: One reason is to a large degree, baseball mirrors the life of the individual, and you have the progression around the bases. If you were using basketball terminology, you'd have slam dunks and you'd have hoop dreams. In football, you'd have touchdowns, first downs. But baseball has a much more complicated sort of power. "Life its own self," as Dan Jenkins once said.

The metaphoric thing started to really take off in the early twentieth century, where people were saying, "This gentleman can't get to first base with this idea," or "Will you touch base with me on this?" But I think the first time it really becomes big was with Franklin D. Roosevelt alluding to baseball terminology in some of his "fireside chats." He would say things like, "My box score with Congress is not very good," or "This legislation is rounding third base on its way home."  Even the word home and the word base, in terms of the progression of the bases, have been applied to everything from sexual prowess to legislation. And you'll turn on the Sunday talk shows with the politicians and they'll say, "This is very inside baseball," or "The Republicans are not stepping up to the plate on this piece of legislation. " If you deconstructed those Sunday shows, you'd find it all over the place.

For a lot of politicians over the years, like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, when they were talking to the people, they were coming from a different realm. Roosevelt was patrician; Eisenhower was military. They really wanted to fix on a set of metaphors that the average person could understand. Even a person who's probably never been to a baseball game living in America knows what it means if you "struck out," you've got "two strikes against you," or you're "out in left field."

VT: Do you think that people who enjoy ruminating about words — how they're used and where they come from — have a kind of a kinship with the sport of baseball?

PD: Yes. I've got a lot of academic people who've contributed to this book and just loved to do it. I think the one thing they have in common is they realize that this is recreational. Doing this kind of research, it's not that we're discovering some religious or spiritual truth about ourselves. The fact is, it's a whale of a good time, going back to these old papers and reading about Babe Ruth and finding all the nicknames that they gave to Ruth. It's its own reward.

So many bright people chimed in on this book. The collective IQ that went into this book is immense. And one of the reasons I hope to keep the book going even after my demise — I'm basically turning it over to my two sons — is it's worth keeping this whole tradition going and collectivizing. All the papers, all the files are being donated to Cooperstown, and we're going to have a little baseball language collection there. So it's going to keep going.


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Monday September 6th 2010, 2:39 PM
Comment by: Zez (Fredericksburg, VA)
I hate to be sappy, but this is just nice. With all the bad stuff going on everywhere, it's good to see something about nice people doing gentle, entertaining stuff.

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Part one of our interview with Paul Dickson, the foremost lexicographer of baseball.
All-Star Words
A selection of "All-Star" vocabulary from the Dickson Baseball Dictionary.
Baseball Words
- 2 Comments
Paul Dickson shares some baseball lingo that has become part of everyday speech.