Word Count

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From Being In a Pickle to Hitting a Can of Corn

The language used by the National Pastime is wonderful and strange (and not all food-related) - there are things you can say in baseball that you wouldn't say anywere else.

Baseball has a lot of lingo, like catching a player in a pickle: when a player is caught in a rundown between two bases and it is only a matter of time before he is tagged out.

What about when a pitcher puts a ball on the black? A strike has to be over the plate to be a strike. The edge of home plate used to have black edging around the main white part, so a pitch on the black just sneaks in there as a strike. Home plates no longer have this black edge, making this phrase especially hard to decode unless you know the history.

Here, I'll focus on things that you can say in a baseball context that are strange or impossible to say outside of baseball.

Say you are telling the story of your vacation to a friend. It's weird to say:

I flied out to Phoenix on Tuesday.

The past tense of fly is flew, and it's unusual to hear anything else. Except in baseball, where announcers are always saying things like:

He flied out to center his last time up.

Sometimes you'll hear this sentence with flew, but not too often. This non-standard past tense, positively strange in everyday life, has become standard in a baseball context.

The common and baseball meanings of the verb take have almost opposite meanings. When you take something while you are just going about the day, you grab, seize or ingest it, like taking a bagel, or taking a vitamin. However, when a batter takes a pitch, the emphasis is on what he is NOT doing - to take a pitch means to let it go by, to not swing at it.  After you take a bagel you have that bagel, but a player who takes a pitch has nothing tangible.

The verb balk has different meanings inside and outside of baseball. In everyday modern life, balk means to refuse to do something, as in:

He balked at yodeling in front of the whole Senior Class, so the committee had to find another act for the talent show.

There are a lot of different things that constitute a baseball balk, but most of them all under the idea of starting and stopping abruptly or not coming to a complete stop. This notion of balk is taken from an earlier sense of the word, to omit or stop short. These definitions have their roots in descriptions of unplowed fields and horses confronted with obstacles, respectively, and predate the common non-baseball use of balk by almost two centuries.

Imagine you are telling a friend about your rich Uncle Larry and his car collection. While talking about a new purchase your uncle made, it would be strange to say:

My uncle owns 4 red cars. He bought another one. It's green.

Although you can tell what this means, there is something off about it. As speakers of English, we really want the parts of that little paragraph that refer to other parts (one) to refer to the entire phrase red car and not just a part of the phrase, like car.

But baseball announcers don't follow this guideline either. When a player hits a home run, you'll often hear something like the following:

A booming shot to left. A three-run homer. It's his tenth of the year.

Judging from the example above, It should refer to the entire phrase three-run homer, and the player should now have hit ten three-run homers so far this year, because it's so awkward to separate three-run from homer, like it's awkward to separate red from car. In baseball, however, that's not what the phrase means: the tenth refers to home runs of any kind. To see this, imagine that a player has just hit a grand slam, and the announcer then says "His tenth of the year." Using your knowledge of baseball, namely the fact that grand slams are very rare, it becomes clear that the tenth refers to any home runs at all.

Baseball terminology is a fascinating mix of phrases that have developed over the decades. Consider the term butcher boy, a quick swing when the batter is set up to bunt, said to look like the swinging of a meat cleaver, credited by some to the great manager Casey Stengel. Or shagging fly balls - although they are pronounced the same, this shag and the Austin Powers-approved shag come from two different sources with the latter probably coming from an obsolete word that meant "to shake" and the baseball term arising from a verb that meant to "rove about like one who strolls or a beggar" presumably because that's what it looks like when you are wandering the outfiled to field fly balls.

How about can of corn? This baseball term refers to a lazy fly ball, perhaps called this because it resembled the easy arc of a grocer using a stick to poke cans of corn so they fell from the shelf into an outstretched apron.

Many of these expressions would be out of place anywhere but the baseball field. The popular food-based idiom for things that are easy is piece of cake, not can of corn and even if you have a male child working in the store where you go to purchase meat, he would probably be a boy butcher, not a butcher boy.

Baseball is a game unlike any other. Untimed, intense but casual at the same time, and the jargon used in the game is intriguingly odd and has a life all its own.

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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.