March 7, 2011

Words You Hear Only During Baseball Broadcasts

The language of baseball is unique -- chin music, can of corn, wheelhouse, ducks on the pond, Uncle Charlie. It also contains numerous words and phrases that have virtually disappeared from common use outside the ballpark.

Does anyone actually ever use the word "pilfer" in normal conversation? I doubt it (unless you are taking a pilfer your headache). But we hear those words on baseball broadcasts and some of us grow up to be announcers and we simply keep using them. Some phrases are now offered with a wink; the "guy-who-makes-a-great-catch-to-end-an-inning-leads-off-the-next-inning" is pretty much used only ironically.

Here are a few phrases I jotted down last season. I'm sure you can think of others.
brouhaha / donnybrook* / rhubarb
speed merchant
camps underneath
calling card
Punch & Judy
* From the Donnybrook Fair, an apparently rowdy festival held in Ireland as far back as 1204. In that respect, it is like "bedlam".

Here are two words for errors you don't really hear anymore: muff and boner.
Back in 2007, in a Baseball Fever thread entitled "Most Cliched Baseball Phrases", someone noted what John Sterling says every time the New York nine complete a victory:
I get the concept of homerism and the fact that announcers are not merely objective observers devoid of partisan emotion, but yech. This call is horrific. Imagine if the famous call of Russ Hodges had been repeated by him after every Giants victory. Wouldn't you be a bit embarrassed as a fan to hear, "The Giants win the game! The Giants win the game! The Giants win the Game!" every time they won?
This is a brilliant example of why Sterling (and many others, to a lesser degree) is such a dismal announcer. Every play in baseball, every situation, is unique -- and deserves to be treated as such. When he uses the same catchphrase over and over, he demeans the game and, as a radio announcer, describing what is happening for people who cannot see it, he lays bare his arrogance and laziness.


allan said...

Even some of my examples don't fit the category I am thinking about, but can't really explain. Pilfer and induce are ideal -- but camps or Punch & Judy really aren't.

(When I went through my 2010 scorecards, I thought I'd find many more words.)

Gareth said...

You hear "induce" a lot around the average labour and delivery ward, though ;)

laura k said...

You hear "induce" a lot around the average labour and delivery ward, though

Exactly what I said when A & I chatted about this list. Labour is induced a lot more often than ground balls! :)

laura k said...

This is a really nice post, btw. I like the reference to Donnybrook and Bedlam. And muff and boner. Good stuff.

Bill said...

As a comic book nerd, "pilfer" and "calling card" come up quite often for me.

lougorman'slunch said...

Since you have posted this, I guess I should ask:

Does anyone know of any historical research on this issue, or maybe more generally, on baseball language going the other direction (idioms from baseball entering into the American lexicon)?

I am looking for any scholarship on the topic, but I am not quite finding much.

Gareth said...

My wife had a baby recently and I was thinking the opposite thought, that apart from those couple of days, I mostly hear "induce" during Sox broadcasts!

laura k said...

Heh, that's funny. :) I've been subjected to a lot of birth stories over the years.

Michael Macomber said...

I can't stand when an announcer uses the term "fisted" when someone gets jammed with a pitch.

Also, and I don't know why, but I don't like when an announcer says that a pitcher has been "economical" with his pitches, I always thought "efficient" would be better, because you can certainly be economically inefficient.

laura k said...

Dr S, you've probably heard of these, but this is what I found:

The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, compiled by Paul Dickson

High and inside: An A to Z guide to the language of baseball, by Joseph McBride

For etymology, World Wide Words is great.

And not exactly scholarly, but Wikipedia has a glossary of English language idioms derived from baseball. Looking at the references might be useful.

laura k said...

you can certainly be economically inefficient

But economical has another meaning: thrifty, sparing, operating with little waste - i.e., efficient.

allan said...

Dickson's book is great, but I don't think it's what you are looking for.

Beyond a strict list, it would be interesting to see when certain words entered common use. Then again, the difference between 1910 and 1930, for example, isn't that much.

Like when did "out of left field" start being used? Or "making it to second base"? I'm not sure there would be an exact year.

Several nautical terms in baseball, too: on deck, in the hole (or is it hold?), portsider, Pirates ...

Conor Duffy said...

What about "Yak!"

christopher said...

I was watching the 5th Inning of Ken Burns' Baseball yesterday, when the focus was on Red Barber, one of the first radio announcers. He made up a lot of good expressions as well as introduced some that have become standard, like "back back back" for a fly ball that becomes a home run.

Wikipedia has a good list of them:

christopher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amy said...

We lawyers use "induce" all the time---did the promise induce the reliance by the promisee? Did the misrepresentation induce the other party to enter the contract? Those are two that come to mind immediately for me as I am teaching Contracts.

Great post! I love to think about how language evolves and what causes those changes. Or induces them. :)

johngoldfine said...

Several nautical terms in baseball, too: on deck, in the hole (or is it hold?),

I've heard--and maybe this is merely local chauvinism-- that these terms originated in Belfast ME, my postal code, when a bunch of local sailors were playing barnstorming major leaguers. Probably apocryphal....

I liked that list very much! Too bad won't sell me my 19.95audio subscription so I can hear them in use.

My students do not know 'out of left field' though it's my favorite place to approach them from, and if it weren't for their parents playing Meat Loaf I doubt they would have a clue about getting to first base, second base--their sex lives are a bit more sophisticated than ours were in the fifties.

laura k said...

Isn't it "in the hole"?

Beyond a strict list, it would be interesting to see when certain words entered common use. Then again, the difference between 1910 and 1930, for example, isn't that much.

I'm sure there are plenty of etymologists who specialize in this. It's such a big part of the American vernacular.

We need an OED for American English.

Amy said...

My son in law used an expression yesterday that I had never heard before. We were watching the Red Sox/Mets game, and he asked whether a particular player (Ryan Kalish, I think) had had a "cup of coffee." I had never heard that expression and asked what he meant. He said it referred to a short stint on the team last year. Is this just my son in law, or is that a generally known baseball expression?

christopher said...

There is an OED for American English!

An interesting point is that I teach English here in Japan, where a number of my co-workers are from other parts of the English speaking world. Idioms from baseball - like "out of left field" - often stump them as much as the students!

Here's a list of idioms from baseball:

laura k said...

I'm looking through Scholar's Portal (Ontario's access to databases for the academic researchers - awesome tool) for articles on baseball and linguistics. Lots of stuff.

All the titles are very specific, because they're all articles and studies. We need a reference book.

I will find some titles at school this week and post it here.

laura k said...

Christopher, can you post that first URL as a link? I can't get it as-is. Thanks.

I posted the Wiki link above in this thread. :)

laura k said...

Is this just my son in law, or is that a generally known baseball expression?

Extremely well known. You've undoubtedly heard it dozens of times over the years.

But as we know, you filter out announcers!*

* With one exception.

christopher said...

Oops, missed that!

Try this for the Oxford Dictionary of American English:

Or on Amazon:

laura k said...

I think Allan meant to include cup of coffee on the list in this post. AFAIK, it's only used with that meaning in baseball.

Amy said...

Thanks, Laura. I am sure I have heard them say that without realizing what it meant or that it was a baseball expression (or, as you suggest, I just filtered it out).

BTW, I can't stand John Sterling either. So that's two announcers named Jo(h)n I can't stand!

johngoldfine said...

I've always liked this one.

lougorman'slunch said...

Hi everyone,
Thanks so much for the information. I'll start checking out some of this material, and I like the Belfast, Maine theory for 'on deck' although I suspect that despite this important role in the history of the game, Belfast is not the likely source for 'bullpen.'

allan said...

I think Allan meant to include cup of coffee on the list in this post.

No, that would not apply. Neither would something like frozen rope.

Induce and pilfer are perfect. A word like forsooth would be perfect, too, if it was used in baseball -- archaic words no longer used in the 21st Century. (Though I think "pilfer a bag" is now used ironically.)

I'll have to be on the lookout for these words as the year begins.

andy said...

I've been using Donnybrook lately.

allan said...

What about "rubber game"? It comes from bridge, which no one plays anymore!

Amy said...

I assume you are joking about bridge. Although I don't play (I never liked card games, other than solitaire!), I know lots of people who do. Not dead yet.

I cannot think of how announcers use "induce." To me it is more a legal term than a baseball term. But then as Laura who already pointed out, I don't listen to the announcers much.

johngoldfine said...

how about "a little nubber down the line...just rolls foul!"

WTF is a nubber and what would a big one look like?

johngoldfine said...

Kids on the playground still play "pickle" or did last time I had playground duty sometime in the eighties.

allan said...

Yes, I am kidding.

Pitchers try to induce a double play.

Amy said...

Ah, yes, induce a double play. Love it.

And also a little nubber!

Reading that Wikipedia list was so much fun. It's truly amazing how much baseball lingo has entered the language. Things we say all the time without even thinking about how they relate to baseball.

Brad said...

what about "around the horn"? I hear it sometimes on the radio station i listen to (let's go around the horn and get your opinion)... but outside of that, i don't hear it.

lougorman'slunch said...

Rubbers, at least, goes back to the 16th century. It is actually a bowling term. I wonder how many of these terms come from other games and baseball is keeping the other games' terminology alive?

A baseball term that has fallen out of usage due to modern rule changes, but I am trying to get it back via wiffleball, is 'soaking' as a term for when the fielder gets out a baserunner by hitting said runner with a thrown ball, as in "I soaked you in the head just before your foot touched first." This, I think, I first heard of in the Burns series.

Pokerwolf said...

Nibbling at the plate? Or how about "He's a nibbler"?

Have you guys heard anyone saying that a batter has been "plonked" by a pitch? I know I've heard it before, but I don't know how often it's actually said.

Pokerwolf said...

A-ha! From todays Cards/Sox broadcast:

"The ump is squeezing the red bird lefty."

allan said...

People use the word "nibble" though. I don't think it's outdated.

I've said before that game stories back in the 1910s used the term franked for being walked. E.g., "Dice was in a groove, but after he franked Jeter, he lost his focus and allowed two dongs." It is a postal expression, but it is not used in baseball anymore. Do postal people use it?

allan said...

Heh -- maybe we should call him "Frank"!

allan said...


lougorman'slunch said...

True enough, but the OED is telling me that it is a 19th century billiards term.