Thursday, April 27, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

[A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors"]

Recently four male friends and I were talking about our dads. We didn't know one another growing up. But we all grew up in the same part of the world, in a roughly 50 mile radius of Philadelphia -- within range of Channel 17 if you had a good UHF aerial. We all remember the slightly traumatic first moment we watched our dads lose their cool, and dissolve in our sight from god-like father figures into spluttering, cussing clowns.

In each case, it happened while watching a Phillies game.

So, in honor today of the birth of Rogers Hornsby (1896-1963), let's play ball.

Baseball in reference to the American game is attested from 1845. Earlier references (e.g. in Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey") refer to the game of "rounders," of which baseball is a more elaborate variety. The American game legendarily was invented in 1839 by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, N.Y. But all of this -- rounders, Doubleday, 1839 -- are open to a sort of endless, unwinnable arcane debate that seems to embody the spirit of the game itself.

Much of the basic language of baseball is as old as the game and dates from the Civil War or before: strike as a noun (1841), pitch (1845), the noun run (1856), plate (1857), single (1858), and out (1860). Many are terms also found in cricket, but whether they were directly borrowed from the older game, or independently coined, is open to question.

But much of the baseball jargon is unique and odd. balk, for instance (attested in baseball from 1845) is an old word, from Old English balca "ridge, ridge of land," especially one between two plowed furrows. It comes from the same Proto-Indo-European root (*bhelg-) that means "beam, plank" and is at the root of Greek phalanx "line of battle," literally "trunk, log," and Latin fulcrum "bedpost."

Modern senses of the English word are figurative, representing either the balk as a hindrance or obstruction (e.g., of horses, "to stop short before an obstacle"), or from the verb sense of "to miss or omit intentionally" (attested by 1484) as a lazy or incompetent plowman would in making balks.

The real flowering of baseball jargon comes in the generation after the Civil War, when baseball writing became an art. From this era date wild pitch (1867), pop in the sense of "to hit a ball high in the air" (1867), infield (1867), outfield (1868), liner (1874), retire in the transitive sense of "to put out" (1874), diamond (1875), assist as a noun (1877), curve as a type of pitch (1879), triple as a verb (1880), shut out as a verb (1881), and bunt (1889). The baseball line-up (1889) is older than the police version (1907).

Baseball writing in those days delighted in florid hyperbole and arcane jargon, and only some of it has survived. One common term no longer in use was battery, which was the word for "pitcher and catcher" considered as a unit (1867).

A number of words and phrases coined by baseball players or writers have passed into the American English language, and in some cases they have advanced so far their connection with the game no longer is felt.

Among them is the verb root meaning "cheer, support" (1889), which originally was a baseball writer's term, perhaps borrowed from the older verb root via an intermediate sense of "study, work hard" (recorded from 1856).

Also on the list is fan "enthusiast" (1889), which originally was used of baseball enthusiasts. It is perhaps a shortening of fanatic, but it may be influenced by the Fancy (1807), a collective term for followers of a certain hobby or sport (especially boxing).

Southpaw for "lefthander" (1885) also originally was baseball slang, in reference to pitchers, and it often is said to have been coined by Finley Peter Dunne ("Mr. Dooley"), Chicago sports journalist and humorist, in the days when baseball diamonds were regularly oriented with home plate to the west.

To second-guess (1941) is a back-formation from second-guesser (1937), baseball slang for a fan who loudly questions decisions by players, managers, etc.; it is perhaps from guesser in the obsolete baseball slang sense of "umpire."

Boner meaning "blunder" is baseball slang from 1912, probably from bonehead "stupid person." (The word in its erectile sense is not attested until the 1940s.)

The widespread use of the adjective designated in modern American English (designated driver, etc.) seems to flow from the baseball designated hitter (introduced in American League baseball in 1973).

Flaky, meaning "eccentric, crazy" is said to be baseball slang, but probably ultimately comes from the 1920s slang term for cocaine. It was, however, popular among ball players before it reached the general public, which may say something about the supposed innocense of the old game.

"The term 'flake' needs explanation. It's an insider's word, used throughout baseball, usually as an adjective; someone is considered 'flaky.' It does not mean anything so crude as 'crazy,' but it's well beyond 'screwball' and far off to the side of 'eccentric.' " ["New York Times," April 26, 1964]

Likewise screwball "eccentric person" probably has a connection to the baseball slang term for a type of erratic pitch (1928); the term was used even earlier in cricket for a type of bowl (1866).

The verb grandstand meaning "to show off" is based on grandstand player, which is first attested in baseball slang from 1888:

"It's little things of this sort which makes the 'grand stand player.' They make impossible catches, and when they get the ball they roll all over the field." [M.J. Kelly, "Play Ball," 1888]

Some other words baseball has bequeathed to the Mother Tongue include:

  • To wait (something) out "endure a period of waiting" (1909), originally in reference to batters trying to draw a base on balls.

  • Bean "head" (c.1905, in bean-ball "a pitch thrown at the head").

  • Flat-footed "unprepared" (1912), on notion of "not on one's toes.

  • Phenom (1890), short for phenomenon.

  • Goose egg for "zero" (1866).

  • Platoon as a verb (1967).

  • Raincheck is first recorded in 1884, in reference to tickets to make-up dates for rained-out baseball games.

  • Charley horse (1888), originally in baseball players' slang, probably from somebody's long-forgotten lame racehorse.

Other baseball terms and expressions have come into common use in a metaphoric or figurative sense. For instance, off base meaning "unawares" is a figure of speech embodying the notion of a baserunner being picked off while taking a lead. To get to first base "make a start" is likewise obviously from baseball. Both, in their figurative senses, date from the 1930s.

The phrase right off the bat (1914, earlier hot from the bat, 1888) is probably a baseball metaphor. To be out in left field "unorthodox, unexpected" is attested from 1959 and seems to suggest baseball, but the association of left and queerness is much older than the game.

The softball, a baseball of larger-than-usual size, used in a scaled-down version of the game meant for urban playgrounds, was so-called since at least 1914. This led to the journalistic softball question (1970s), one that is easy to answer.

Baseball stadiums have been called ballparks since at least 1899, but it wasn't until the rise of aerospace technology in the Cold War that ballpark acquired a figurative sense of "acceptable range of approximation." The original notion is of the area within which a spacecraft was expected to return to earth; the reference is to broad but reasonably predictable dimensions.

In the baseball sense, minor league is from 1884; the figurative extension is first recorded 1926.

Switch-hitter has been a baseball term for a player who bats either left- or right-handed since the 1930s. In 1956 it emerged with a new sense of "bisexual person."

Some expressions that seem quintessential to baseball actually originated elsewhere. The original murderer's row was in New York City's Tombs prison. Bullpen in the baseball sense is first recorded 1915, but it is perhaps from an earlier slang meaning "temporary holding cell for prisoners" (1809). A double-header originally was a kind of fireworks, and also a railway train pulled by two engines. The baseball dugout (1914) earlier meant "rough shelter" (c.1855).

K As an indication of "strikeout" in baseball scorekeeping is first recorded c.1880 and said to be from last letter of struck, since first letter already was being used as abbreviation for sacrifice. The invention of the scorecard symbols is attributed to newspaperman Henry Chadwick.

One of the oddest of baseball slang words is fungo, which goes back to 1867 but which somehow escaped the attention of the scrupulous editors of the Oxford English Dictionary right through their second edition (1989). Nobody knows where it comes from. It has a striking resemblance, in sound and sense, to the Old English word fon "to seize," which is related to fang but otherwise has been quite extinct in the active language for many centuries. Its reappearance on the baseball field would make it a veritable coelacanth.

Rhubarb, as a baseball slang word meaning "loud squabble on the field," is from 1938 and is said to have been first used by broadcaster Garry Schumacher. Perhaps the connected is with the use of "rhubarb" as a word repeated by stage actors to give the impression of hubbub or conversation in crowd scenes, which is attested from 1934.