Dept. of Word Lists
"Baseball has had a phenomenal influence on the English language," says writer and lexicographer Paul Dickson. Paul should know. As the author of The Hidden Language of Baseball and The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary (and over 40 other books!), he's studied the impact of America's favorite pastime on English for the past three decades. Paul graciously shared some examples of baseball lingo that's now part of everyday speech.
Designated hitter. "This is a strange construction in English, 'designated 'x'' but it gave birth to the term 'designated driver.'"
Hit-and-run. "A baseball play that's been around since the 19th century. When the automobile arrived, all of a sudden the phrase also meant 'a hit-and-run accident.'"
Doubleheader. "This word started with the railroads in the 19th century, referring to a train with two engines that pulled a heavy load, before it filtered into baseball and then the general language."
Charley horse. "In standard English it's a muscle strain in the upper thigh. But the phrase goes back to an old baseball legend about a player in the 1870s who kept coming up limp. He would say his leg felt like a "Charley horse," referring to an old Victorian toy that had the carved head of a pony on a pole that kids rode around on."
First base. "This phrase was first popularized as a metaphor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who introduced baseball terminology in his famous 'fireside chats.' He'd say, for example, 'well, I can't seem to get to first base with my labor legislation.' Eisenhower did a lot of this, too. When talking to the public, baseball terms helped both presidents connect to their audience. But keep in mind this came naturally to them -- they were both huge baseball fans -- it wasn't forced."
Rookie. "Comes right out of 1890s baseball as a corruption of 'recruit,' a first year player. This word may have originated even earlier with the British Victorian poet Rudyard Kipling, who used it in his barrack room ballads when talking about 'rookies,' or 'recruits.'"
Bush league. "An old baseball term. Sometimes players would call country bumpkins 'bushers,' like they came out of the bushes. This eventually evolved into 'bush league.' There was never an official bush league, however -- it just meant 'amateurish.'"
Screwball. "A pitch that went awry. It went from that to meaning someone who's a little eccentric."
Southpaw. "Comes right out of baseball. Ballparks in America have been traditionally set up so that the bleachers got the sun late in the day -- and the more expensive seats got the cool shade. Players would stand in the same orientation, from north to south. The left handed ones were facing south, hence 'southpaw.'"
Goat. "A clipped form of 'scapegoat.' In baseball it was the guy who screwed up in the game the day before."
Curve ball. Extra innings. Squeeze play. Strikeout. "There are so many baseball metaphors that are now so much a part of our speech. What's amazing, too, is that they've even migrated to other English speaking countries, even if they don't have a tradition of playing baseball."
Paul Dickson also sent us this fantastic quote from Tristan Potter Coffin's book "The Old Ball Game." Enjoy:
"No other sport and few other occupations have introduced so many phrases, so many words, so many twists into our language as has baseball. The true test comes in the fact that old ladies who have never been to the ballpark, coquettes who don't know or care who's on first, men who think athletics begin and end with a pair of goal posts, still know and use a great deal of baseball-derived terminology. Perhaps other sports in their efforts to replace baseball as 'our national pastime,' 'have two strikes on them before they come to bat.'
Perhaps the best way to drive this home is to present a partial list of terms and phrases that started in baseball (or, at least, were given a major boost by it) but that have much wider application, to wit: 'A' team, ace, Alibi Ike, Annie Oakley, back-to-back, ballpark figure, bat a thousand, batting average, bean, bench, benchwarmer, Black Sox, bleacher, bonehead, boner, box score, the breaks, breeze/breeze through, Bronx cheer, bunt, bush, bush league(r), butterfingers, 'call 'em as I see 'em,' catch flat-footed, caught in a squeeze play, charley horse, choke, circus catch, clutch, clutch hitter, curveball, doubleheader, double play, extra innings, fan, fouled out, gate money, get one's innings in, get to first base, go to bat for, grandstander, grandstand play, ground rules, hardball, heads up, hit and run, 'hit 'em where they ain't,' hit the dirt, home run, hot stove league, hustler, in the ballpark, in a pinch, in there pitching, 'it ain't over 'til it 's over,' 'it's a (whole) new ball game,' jinx, keep your eye on the ball, ladies day, Louisville Slugger, minor league, muff, 'nice guys finish last,' ninth inning rally, off base, on-deck, one's licks, on the ball, on the bench, out in left field, out of my league, phenom, pinch hitter, play ball with, play the field, play-by-play, pop up, rain check, rhubarb, right off the bat, rookie, rooter, Ruthian, safe by a mile, 'say it ain't so, Joe,' screwball, seventh-inning stretch, showboat, shut out, smash hit, southpaw, spitball, squeeze play, Stengalese, strawberry, strike out, sucker, switch hitter, team play, Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, touch all bases, two strikes against him, 'wait 'til next year,' warm up, whitewash, 'Who's on first?' , windup, 'you can't win 'em all,' 'you could look it up.'"