Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Pitcher with a Thesaurus in His Locker

The baseball season is in full swing now, and as a long-suffering fan of the New York Mets, I've learned to content myself with the small pleasures of the game. The Mets started the season with a road trip, going 3-3 — not bad, I'll take it. Pitching in today's home opener at Citi Field is R.A. Dickey, who has emerged as a fan favorite, not just for his way with a knuckleball, but for his way with words.

Listen to Dickey talk to Boomer & Carlton in a interview broadcast on WFAN yesterday and you'll get an idea of what a thoughtful speaker he is. The way he chooses his words is always refreshing. Speaking of his fellow pitcher Mike Pelfrey, Dickey said he hoped Pelfrey would arrest his early-season jitters after two tough outings. As Greg Prince wrote on the wonderfully literate Mets blog Faith and Fear in Flushing, "he said 'arrest' as in 'stop' or 'halt' when the rest of us would have stopped or halted at 'stop' or 'halt.'" Later in the interview, he corrected a rumor that during his minor-league days he once tried to swim across the Mississippi River. No, he explained, "I tried to traverse the Missouri River."

Not cross, traverse. That's just not a word you hear from a big-league pitcher too often. But it's entirely typical of Dickey. In a profile in the North Jersey Record last year, sportswriter Jeff Roberts said Dickey "looks more like an English professor than a major leaguer." In fact, he studied English at the University of Tennessee before getting drafted and is working toward a degree in literature. Roberts also revealed what was on the top shelf of Dickey's locker: nine books, including a dictionary, a thesaurus, Life of Pi, and A Year With C.S. Lewis.

The way that Dickey uses words like arrest and traverse in interviews with reporters never sounds labored or pretentious. He just has a gift for speaking, and listening to his Tennessee-inflected comments before and after games you can readily imagine him delivering an easy-going lecture as an English lit professor — which happens to be his fallback career.

Last season, Prince compiled "The Collected Wisdom of R.A. Dickey" for the Faith and Fear blog, with some of the choicest nuggets from Dickey's postgame interviews. Words that might have originated from the thesaurus in his locker sit comfortably with earthier baseball language:

  • On the impact the winds of AT&T Park may have had on his knuckleball: "Inconsequential."

  • After arguing to no avail with [Jerry] Manuel when the manager came to the mound to remove him when it appeared he injured himself while engaged in a pitchers' duel the Mets would go on to lose to the Dodgers 1-0 on July 25: "It seemed like he was giving me a chance, but maybe my argument wasn't compelling enough. I don't know. But I definitely felt the compulsion to plead my case, and I did. On that small comebacker, with the pitcher running, I felt like I could afford to treat it a little more gingerly than I otherwise would. But I think that probably alarmed the powers that be."

  • After pitching into the ninth and earning his first win in a month, 4-0 over the Cardinals, July 29, following a tough Mets loss the night before: "We lost a heartbreaker yesterday. The propensity is to pout about it or mope about it. You really saw the character of this team today."

  • After an impressive 5-1 victory over the Marlins on August 29 when he scattered six hits over seven-plus innings: "I'm hopeful that for the rest of my career, the anomaly will be the bad outing. It's nice to be on the same stat page, so to speak, but I don't give it a lot of thought."

  • On Manuel's suggestion that he might bring him back in the season's final game just to receive another round of applause from the appreciative Citi Field crowd: "If I had my druthers, that was an ovation enough."

I don't know what kind of season the Mets are going to have, but I do know that listening to Dickey's well-spoken reflections on the game will remain a sublime treat. And that's hardly inconsequential.

[P.S.: During the pre-season, Dickey was asked by New York Times reporter David Waldstein about two brainy additions to the Mets pitching staff — Chris Capuano (economics major at Duke University) and Chris Young (politics major at Princeton). Dickey said, "I'm not sure I belong in the same category as those guys; I'm autodidactic." That's right: autodidactic. Waldstein also reported that Dickey was working his way through Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev.]

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday June 1st 2011, 4:29 AM
Comment by: edward Y.
paging jim brosnan~
Saturday November 17th 2012, 12:18 AM
Comment by: Trapper (Vero Beach, FL)
If you know you are going to be interviewed and read by as many people as a baseball player can have fans, it could be more fun to be interviewed if you are able to use words which suit the context of the question. Right?
Thursday November 22nd 2012, 4:40 AM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
I'd love to read a fantasy dialogue between Dickey and Yogi Berra. It could be a hoot to write , also. Tempted anybody?

Keith Mac, Kula, Maui

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