The Language of Baseball

"No other sport has contributed more words to American English than baseball"

The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, 3rd edition, by Paul Dickson (W.W. Norton & Co., 2009; paperback edition, 2011).

Does the game of baseball have its own language? You make the call:

Any jelly bean with a pole can cork a meatball out of hard cheese.

All right, it's hard to imagine anybody ever uttering such a peculiar sentence--not even Yogi Berra at his most baffling. But after dipping into The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (2009), masterfully compiled by Paul Dickson, we could at least puzzle it out.

In the distinctive jargon of what used to be called "our national pastime," any rookie (a "jelly bean") with a bat ("pole") can hit ("cork") a fastball ("hard cheese") that comes right down the middle of the plate (a "meatball").

Of course, if that huckleberry is a buttercup, the old apple may turn into a can of corn.*


Bleeders, Bloops, and Squibs

More than 10,000 terms appear in The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, and it's true that most of them rarely "leave the yard." For decades, sports journalists and broadcasters have entertained fans with a bewildering range of synonyms for all aspects of the game.

Sixty years ago, in the second supplement to The American Language, H. L. Mencken collected more than 100 terms just for the word "hit"--including "bleeder," "bloop," "dribbler," "nibbler," "nubber, "scratch," and "squib." They may sound like names rejected by Walt Disney for the Seven Dwarfs, but in fact all mean essentially the same thing: a weak hit that makes it through the infield on sheer good luck.

The Snodgrass Muff

Some of the most colorful baseball expressions are also the most poignant: those derived from the names of ballplayers remembered only for their blunders and misfortunes.

Consider the "Snodgrass Muff," which Dickson defines as a "muff or boner, named for the hapless New York Giants outfielder Fred Snodgrass, who dropped an easy fly ball hit by Boston Red Sox pinch hitter Clyde Engle in the tenth inning of the final game (Oct. 12) of the 1912 World Series."

Never mind that in the fifth inning of the second game of the 1966 World Series, Dodger outfielder Willie Davis committed three errors.

Or that in game six of the 1986 "fall classic," Red Sox first-baseman Bill Buckner--ah, but as we said, never mind. What endures in the lexicon of baseball, nearly a century after the event, is the legendary Snodgrass Muff.


Clearly, no other sport has contributed more words to American English than baseball. As Tristram Potter Coffin observed in The Old Ball Game (1971), "The true test comes in the fact that old ladies who have never been to the ballpark, coquettes who don't know or care who's on first, men who think athletics begin and end with a pair of goal posts, still know and use a great deal of baseball-derived terminology."

And "right off the bat," a few of those terms (just a "ballpark figure") spring to mind.

At one time or another, we've all been "shut out," "caught flat-footed," and then "left on the bench." Invariably, just when we thought we were "batting a thousand," we "choked" in the "clutch" and "struck out."

Oh, once we might have tried to "play the field," maybe even "got to first base." But failing to keep an "eye on the ball," we found ourselves "out in left field" or even "out of our league" altogether.

"In a pinch," we've probably "gone to bat" for a friend who had "taken his licks" and already had "two strikes against him." At work, we've tried to be "a team player," follow "the ground rules," "touch all the bases"--even when we've had to "play hardball." On occasion we've "taken a rain check"; sometimes we've "hit the dirt."

"You can't win 'em all," we've said more than once, because we can only "call 'em as we see 'em." And in the end, I suspect, after all the "fouls" and "sacrifices," we'll still be saying as we "head home" ("you could look it up"), just "wait till next year!"

* If that rookie ("huckleberry") is a weak hitter ("buttercup"), the baseball ("apple") may be easily caught ("a can of corn").

To learn more about The Dickson Baseball Dictionary and other fine books on language, visit Paul Dickson's website.