The Language of Baseball and English Idiom

A picture of a night game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
Dodger Stadium, August 13, 2011 Credit: Adam_sk

Foolish me; I had been planning for some time to welcome the Springtime return of major league baseball with a bit about the ways the language of baseball in the form of baseball idioms has crept into ordinary American English.

I’m far too late to the pitch. There’s a wikipedia article already. Even the OED got to first base before me.

There are books about the language of baseball; Ryan Gray’s The Language of Baseball: A Complete Dictionary of Slang Terms, Cliches, and Expressions From The Grand Ole Game. And there’s a book (and a website) by Paul Dickson about the signs used to signal plays used by catchers, pitchers, coaches and even players (at bat or in the field); The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime.

Nonetheless, because I love the way baseball has embedded itself so very thoroughly into American English, I’m going to talk about a handful of words and phrases. Bear in mind that while I love baseball, I’m not a player or even an expert fan; these are not in depth explorations, and there are at least fifty more idioms that while derived from baseball, are used in ordinary American English.

Off base I can’t actually prove that off base meaning “badly mistaken” derives from baseball, but I suspect it originally referred to a player who was not on base (that is the player was between or near a base, but not physically touching it), and could therefore be rendered “out” by a ball thrown by the pitcher or an outfielder. The OED does seem to agree with my hypothesis though.

Out of left field Left field, as the AHD notes, refers to

a. The third of the outfield that is to the left, looking from home plate.
b. The position played by the left fielder.

Something “out of left field” has come to mean “A position far from the center or mainstream” (AHD s.v. left field). If you’re standing at Home plate, it can be difficult to see what’s going on in the left, so players can be surprised.

Flied The Conventional past tense form of the verb to fly is flew. But in baseball, when describing the action of a fly ball that a batter hits (“A ball that is batted in a high arc, usually to the outfield”) it’s correct to use the form flied as the past tense and past participle for “To hit a fly ball” as in this bit from Vin Scully’s last broadcast for the Los Angeles Dodgers1 (emphasis mine):

Romo ready, fouled out by Rob Segedin, who flied out to right field in the seventh inning.