Word Traveler: Baseball terminology

This feature is for all word lovers as well as those studying for the SAT and seeking to learn new vocabulary.

"Baseball fan or not," the late Stuart Flexner wrote in Listening to America, "when you listen to America you hear baseball." Baseball illustrates how sports terms have become part of everyday English speech. How many of us have used the expressions: "He had two strikes against him," "I could not get to first base with her," "I will take a rain check on it," "I think you are way off base on that," "He went to bat for me," "Don't throw me more curve balls," "She is out in left field," "He has a lot on the ball," "I liked him right off the bat," or "The ballgame's not over until the last man is out"? Another example is southpaw - which now simply means a left-handed person, whether or not he or she has ever picked up a baseball. This list has hardly "touched all the bases" with baseball vocabulary's influence on English.

Paul Dickson says in his introduction to The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary, "The influence of baseball on American English at large is stunning and strong." No other sport has contributed so richly to American English as baseball. Slang terms - as distinct from jargon - have evolved a usage and meaning independent of baseball and are often used by those with little knowledge of the game. Many of these terms are deeply entrenched in the American psyche.

Baseball vocabulary is a plus in everyday speech and writing as a tool to describe positive and negative feelings, special situations, and awkward moments. To paraphrase social commentator Jacques Barzun, whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn his or her sports. Sports, especially baseball, has made a huge number of contributions of words and idioms to the English language. This vocabulary may not be elegant prose, but terms from baseball have become part of everyday speech.

There is no question that baseball terms are an everyday part of the American lexicon. Even those who know nothing about the game itself understand what it means if we're asked to "pinch hit" for someone or that we're "batting a thousand" if we're doing well or "striking out" if we're not. We all know someone who seems to be a bit of a "screwball," or "bonehead," "out in left field." If a store is "caught flat-footed" and is out of a certain item, they offer the customer a "rain check."

Why is baseball terminology so dominant in the language? Does it suggest that the situations that develop as the game is played are comparable to the patterns of our daily lives? Does the sport imitate the fundamentals of the national life or is the national life shaped to an extent by the character of the sport?

A few examples of baseball-derived terms from Dictionary.com:

ballpark figure, in the ballpark
big league
drop the ball
get to first base
left field
off base
play ball
play hardball
rain check
strike out
touch base
a whole new ball game

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