Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

The Bountiful Lexicon of Baseball

As Major League Baseball heads into the All-Star break, we're taking advantage of the mid-season breather to think about the rich language of baseball. We talked to Paul Dickson, the sport's great lexicographer, about the monumental Dickson Baseball Dictionary. Recently published in its third edition, the dictionary has grown into a thousand-page tome of unprecedented breadth and scope. In the first part of our two-part interview, Dickson explains how his dictionary encompasses the whole history of baseball, from the early days of "protoball" to the latest statistical advances.

VT: What compelled you to start on this amazing project?

PD: I went to a ballgame in 1984 with my sons Andrew and Alex. Andrew, my older son, kept asking me these rather unremarkable but pertinent questions about different things on the ball field. Why is it a dugout? Why shortstop? Why do you say umpire and not referee? Why do you have a manager and not a coach?

The idea was we would go get a book from the library and look all this stuff up the next Monday, and there was no book. By that time I had probably published about 11 or 12 books, and I got the immediate idea that I would do a dictionary. I'd never done a full-fledged dictionary before. And so I got working on it and brought out a first edition in 1989. It took me about five years, and that was about 5,000 terms.

People kept coming to me with suggestions for other terms. There were new terms being created through statistics. There were more words migrating into American baseball from Spanish and Japanese. It just grew again and 10 years later, the second edition came out with about 7,000 terms. That was 1999. Then the process accelerated, and more and more people got into the act. And in 2009, this year, the third edition is out with over 10,000 terms.

What happened during the course of the book was that I recruited this ad-hoc group of people who were very willing to help me find first uses, find terms from the nineteenth and even eighteenth century, and determine when new statistical terms were entering the vocabulary. That's the model the Oxford English Dictionary has used: it has always had this group of savvy amateurs out there and some professionals. Some of those people were professional statisticians, for example, who all used statistical terminology.

VT: In some ways, the growth of the dictionary has mirrored the growth of the sport of baseball. What do you see as the big changes that have occurred in the sport and also the language of the sport since you started working on this?

PD: Some things are fairly obvious. One is the desire for people who announce and broadcast games to come up with new terms, so they're always trying to come up with fresh terms: three-seam fastballs and four-seam fastballs, trying to differentiate pitches, things like that. That's a constant — it's been going on since the nineetenth century. We've also seen more and more terms migrating from other languages.

But I think the biggest change has been statistical. There are over 300 new statistical terms in this edition. That's fostered by a number of things. One is the growth of sabermetrics, which is the academic study of baseball as a statistical playpen. Another catalyst has been fantasy baseball, people who create their own leagues. And so that group will do a lot of statistical analysis to try to figure out who's the best player.

The other thing is just the business of research has changed. More and more newspapers are going online as part of machine searchable databases. We have more and more places to look for odd terminology. People are always calling me. Today, I had somebody call me up and say he found three nineteenth-century references to something called a Spanish home run. And I said, "Great, what is a Spanish home run?" He said, "Who knows?" So now, the search is on for Spanish home run. The records are now becoming better and better, going even further back. Even some of the eighteenth-century stuff is now starting to show up in machine-readable form, so that little things that you're looking for with a machine-readable format, you can find.

VT: So you're finding things back to the eighteenth century. Is that the pre-history of baseball, finding out where these terms originated in earlier sports, both in Great Britain and the United States?

PD: Yes, there are a number of scholars of that era, including David Block, who invented the term protoball for prototypical forms of baseball. We're learning a lot about where these terms come from.

VT: So your dictionary doesn't just begin with the American baseball era, but tries to look for roots in ball sports like cricket or rounders or other predecessors?

PD: Yes, and also town ball, the Massachusetts games. We concentrate a lot in the book on American precursors from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as British precursors. If we only limit it to the modern stuff, I think it would be less interesting. It adds to the whole heritage of it.

VT: Another part of that linguistic heritage is the development of a particular style of writing about baseball that developed in the late nineteenth century, and your dictionary has lots of examples of this. How did baseball writers develop this florid style?

PD: Part of what happened in the nineteenth century was that baseball became a huge item for the newspapers. One reason was the box score. Box scores could be sent by telegraph overnight, so that you could keep track of all the major teams. The next morning, you would have all the scores in your paper because those could be transmitted and then set into type very quickly. And so it became a big thing for the newspapers.

Newspapers, especially the tabloids and the ones that were for the working man or woman, loved sports. This, of course, goes back to England. The British newspapers discovered before we did that there was a huge market for popular sports on a daily basis. In Britain, there were things like cockfighting and prizefighting, the "low" sports, as opposed to the more exalted sports of the nobility.

But then also the papers started assigning their cleverest, slangiest, most colorful guys to writing sports. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "Baseball has destroyed more good writers than alcohol," and he was alluding to a lot of very good writers who cut their teeth in the sports department. And also they were filling columns. There's only so many ways you can describe a ball that drops in the outfield. So one day it became a dying quail or a can of corn.

Sports writing had this openness. Even terms like charley horse come out of the sports pages. It had a Latinate name that doctors gave it, but the sports writers often just rewrote those things, in terms of what they meant to baseball. And then the broadcasters took over, as radio came in. Many major metropolitan areas brought in Southern guys with a wonderful sense of metaphor, exaggeration and colorful language who were able to create an enchanted spell over a game.

Next week in part two of our interview, Dickson discusses the international influences on the language of baseball, and how the sport has become a rich metaphorical source in politics and elsewhere.

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