English language idioms derived from baseball
- ballpark: in the ballpark, ballpark figure, and out of the ballpark — "Ballpark" has been used to mean a broad area of approximation or similarity, or a range within which comparison is possible; this usage OED dates to 1960. Another meaning, "sphere of activity or influence", is cited in 1963. "In the (right) ballpark", meaning "within reasonable bounds" dates to 1968. A "ballpark figure" or "ballpark estimate", one that is reasonably accurate, dates to 1967. The meaning of "out of the ball park" is to hit a home run; its non-baseball equivalent is to do something well or exactly as it should be done.
"'They said Itanium would never be their fastest 32-bit processor, but it would be in the ballpark. The original x86 hardware execution mechanism was not in the ballpark. It was barely in the parking lot around the ballpark,' Brookwood said.' — Stephen Shankland, "Intel plans Itanium course correction", The New York Times, 23 April 2003
"Patrick Wiles, a vice president of First Pioneer Farm Credit in Riverhead, said the 'ballpark figure' for prime vineyard land on the North Fork is $50,000 to $60,000 an acre, 'assuming the development rights have been sold.'" — Howard G. Goldberg, "Long Island Vines; Macari Price: $9.5 Million", The New York Times, 18 July 2004
MSNBC said Hillary knocked it “out of the park.” "Hillary Resonates with Winning Speech", New American Media, 27 August 2008
- batting 1000 or batting a thousand — Getting everything in a series of items right. In baseball, someone with a batting average of one thousand (written as 1.000) has had a hit for every at bat in the relevant time period (e.g. in a game). AHDI dates its non-baseball usage to the 1920s. May also be used ironically when someone is getting everything wrong.
"But Boston Scientific also needs to hope that a rare event does not become magnified, he said. 'It has to be pretty much batting a thousand for a time,' he said." — Reed Abelson, "After a Recall, Boston Scientific Tries to Assure Wary Investors", The New York Times, July 27, 2004
- big league(s), used as a noun ("You're in the big leagues now") or an adjective ("big-league lawyer"). OED cites "big league" as specifically American major-league baseball, and cites its first use in 1899; the non-baseball use appears in 1947. Contrast bush league, below.
"For a listener who last heard the New Haven Symphony in the mid-60's, in a game but scrappy performance of Britten's 'War Requiem,' its concert on Friday evening was a happy surprise. Under its music director, Michael Palmer, it sounded for the most part like a big-league band, at home in a big-league setting." — James Oestreich, "New Haven Symphony Orchestra Carnegie Hall", The New York Times, 25 January 1994
- brush back — To subvert or threaten verbally. In baseball, a nickname for any pitch intended to establish a pitcher's command of the inside portion of the strike zone, usually involving throwing a pitch at or near a hitter who may be covering that portion of the strike zone. Its baseball usage is cited in many dictionaries (AHD4, M-W, etc), but its transition to the vernacular has yet to be cited or dated.
"The Washington Times' George Archibald reports that Gerald A. Reynolds, assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education, has sent a long overdue brush-back letter to college and university officials concerning their odious and oppressive campus speech codes." — David Limbaugh, "Targeting speech codes on campus", The Washington Times, August 19, 2003.
- bush-league — amateur, unsophisticated, unprofessional. From the baseball term for a second-rate baseball league and therefore its players (as in bush-league pitcher etc). OED cites its first baseball use as 1906, non-baseball in 1914. Contrast big league, above.
"Kinsley, who does come off as the stereotypical Los Angeles-hating East Coast wonk, said recently that because L.A. is the second biggest city in the country, 'it's really bush league to care about where the writers are from.'"— Catherine Seipp, "Afflict the Comfortable: Chicks on their laptops", The National Review, March 24, 2005
- can of corn. In baseball, an easy fly ball to catch. The original meaning was taken from a shop owner using a broomstick to knock down a can of food from a high shelf. In business, an easy or obvious decision. A no-brainer.
"$1400 Rent To Own As Easy As A Can Of Corn With SuburbanRTOHomes.com!
- cat bird seat, cat-bird seat or catbird seat — an advantageous or superior position or situation. AHDI alludes to the catbird's habitual high perch. Popularized by sportscaster Red Barber, it first appeared in print in a 1942 short story by James Thurber; Barber is quoted as saying he first heard it during a poker game years before.
"Clearly, friends say, he is relishing his sudden ascent from Democratic reject in Connecticut to Senate kingmaker in Washington. 'He is just sitting there in the catbird seat, and it must be delicious for him,' Ms. Collins said." — Mark Leibovich, "Enter, Pariah: Now It’s Hugs for Lieberman", The New York Times, 15 November 2006
- Charley horse — sudden stiffness or cramp in the leg. Of unknown etymology; CDS cites its first use c. 1887 as baseball slang; OED states such cramps occur "especially in baseball players" and cites this usage to 1888
"Tried on more than 1,400 patients for almost two years, it has proved effective for many kinds of pain in the muscles and around joints — charley horse, tennis elbow, stiff neck, torticollis ('wryneck'), whiplash injury, muscular rheumatism, and muscle pain resulting from slipped disks." — "Brave New Soma", Time, 8 June 1959
- cleanup hitter — someone who comes in to solve a problem or lead a team. In baseball a cleanup hitter is the fourth man in the batting order, typically a slugger who is expected to clear the bases by driving other runners home to score runs.
Under the headline "Merrill's cleanup hitter: new position focuses on quality of research," it is stated that "at Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., the "buy," "sell" and "hold" buck stops with William J. Genco.
Under the headline "Trimeris Gets a Cleanup Hitter," it is stated that "Yesterday, tiny drug developer Trimeris (Nasdaq: TRMS) announced that it finally found a permanent CEO to help get itself in order following the resignation of its former leader a year ago.
Referring to President George W. Bush: "There is a reason he is the current president and it is not just because of his Daddy or money — I think he makes a pretty solid cleanup hitter for the Republican Party and brought home the points made during the previous 4 days of the convention.
- cover one's bases; cover all the bases — Ensure safety. In baseball, a player covers a base by standing close to it, ensuring a runner can not reach it safely. In business, covering one's bases means being prepared for every contingency. Mentioned but not dated by Oxford University Press
"Arson investigators sifted through the rubble of an Airdrie Stud barn today, but failed to determine the cause of a fire that killed 15 thoroughbred broodmares and yearlings Saturday night. The horses were worth more than $1 million, according to Brereton Jones, owner of the 3,000-acre stud farm. 'We do not have any reason to believe it was arson, but you just want to be sure you cover all the bases,' he said." — Associated Press, "Fatal Barn Fire Still A Mystery",, The New York Times, 7 January 1985
Cisco’s FastHub 400 series has the bases covered.
- curve, curveball, as in "she really threw me a curveball" — A surprise, often completely and totally unexpected. The curveball is a pitch in baseball designed to fool the batter by curving unexpectedly. AHDI dates this usage to the mid-1900s.
"Because of my personal story, I'm very interested in illness. One thing we discovered as a family is that when you're thrown a curveball like cancer or multiple sclerosis, often people do not know what to do first." Meredith Vieira, quoted by Jeff Chu, "10 Questions for Meredith Vieira", Time, 27 August 2006
"Desormeaux chalked up the latest loss, his second so close to the Triple Crown, to another twist in a life so full of them. 'Life throws curves,' he said, 'Some of us hit it, and some of us will sulk around. We've continued to hit the curvevall'".
- down to the last out — To have just one last chance, to be near the end of the competition.
"Hillary Clinton is now down to her last out.
"If politics were baseball, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney might be down to his last out".
- ducks on a pond. In baseball, having runners in scoring position, ready for a batter to drive them home. In business, "a situation with a good chance to succeed".
- extra innings— To extend the original time alloted in order to break a tie or settle an issue.
headine: "Extra Innings for the Cloned Food Debate".
headline: "Microsoft, Yahoo Game Going Into Extra Innings?".
- foot in the bucket — To act timidly or cowardly. A batter who steps away from home plate with his leading foot (usu. in fear of being struck by a pitched ball) instead of a straight-ahead stride is said to "step in the bucket".
- hardball, play hardball — (Be or act) tough, aggressive. Refers to the comparison between balls in baseball and softball. Baseball is generally considered the more difficult game. As a synonym for baseball, OED dates this use to 1883; its non-baseball use appears in 1973
"Hauser would like to extend its three-year contract with Bristol-Myers, becoming a supplier of the material for semi-synthetic Taxol. 'I think this is just tough bargaining,' said Deborah Wardwell of Dain Bosworth Securities. 'It seems to suggest hardball tactics.'" — Milt Freudenheim, "Bristol-Myers will not Renew Hauser Pact", The New York Times, 10 January 2007
- hit it out of the park or knock it out of the park — To achieve complete or even a spectacular success; compare home run, below. A home run is automatically scored when a batter strikes the ball with such force as to hit it out of the stadium or playing field.
"11:55 AM: Kerry stumbled over the question of whether God is on America's side. But Edwards hit it out of the park with his anecdote about Abraham Lincoln saying America is on God's side. He is the more nimble debater and conversationalist." — Katherine Q. Seelye, "The Democratic Presidential Debate", The New York Times, 29 February 2004
- hit or miss — To either achieve success or completely fail. Referencing a baseball batter's swing at a pitched ball.
- home run — A complete success (opposite of strike out); often used in the verb phrase "hit a home run". OED cites this usage to 1965
"HGTV caught on quickly, and is now carried in 90 million homes. The Food Network has been a home run as well, luring viewers interested in cooking." — Geraldine Fabrikant, "Scripps Is in Search of Its Next Food Network", The New York Times, 14 August 2006
"Hillary Hits a HOME RUN on The O'Reilly Factor!!!
- "It ain't over till it's over!" — A famous quotation from baseball player Yogi Berra ; one of many yogiisms. In sports, it means that a game is not over until time expires, the final out is registered, etc., and that the players need to stay mentally focused until the game is officially over. The term comes into play when a team has a large lead but then starts to let their guard down, especially when there is time left for the losing team to rally (and possibly win the game). The original and self-evident adage, misstated by Berra, is "The game is not over until the last man is out."
"In spite of last winter's nice snowpack and a wet summer, here's the bad news about New Mexico's drought: It ain't over till it's over, and it ain't over." — Staci Matlock, "Experts: No end in sight for New Mexico drought", The New Mexican, October 9, 2005
- "It's like déjà vu all over again!" — Another famous (attributed) yogiism It's a redundant way of saying "Here we go again!" It has come into general circulation in the language to describe any situation which seems to be observably repeating itself.
"Kay told CNN he is worried because he's hearing some of the same signals about Iran and its nuclear program that were heard as the Bush administration made its case for the war in Iraq. 'It's déjà vu all over again,' Kay said." — David Kay, former U.S. chief weapons inspector (quote), "Kay, Carter urge caution on Iran", CNN.com, February 9, 2005
- knock the cover off the ball — to succeed beyond expectation. Derived from the act of hitting the ball exceptionally hard, so as to make the leather covering come off. Possibly derived from the poem Casey at the Bat.
"In the last two quarters, we knocked the cover off the ball...We exceeded analysts expectations on Wall Street and our own guidance in both quarters.
- "late innings" — see "ninth inning".
- left field, as in "that insult really came out of left field" — Unusual, unexpected, or irrational. AHDI dates this idiom back to the mid-1900s; it also states that the precise allusion is disputed, but a number of theories exist. Rumored to originally describe fans who came to Yankee Stadium to see Babe Ruth (a right fielder) but who bought tickets for the wrong side of the field. Another legend is that the phrase originates from the location of the Neuropsychiatric Institute building of the University of Illinois College of Medicine, which was built on land that was once part of left field at West Side Park, the former home of the Chicago Cubs.
"Depp's performance came out of left field in The Curse of the Black Pearl; nobody had ever thought of channeling Keith Richards and Pepé Le Pew before." — Kent Williams, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" (review), Isthmus: The Daily Page, no date.
- Mendoza line — a line marking a very poor performance, referring to the Mendoza line of a 0.200 batting average in baseball.
"Over the last five years, Wall Street analysts have only been right once. They're below the Mendoza line, batting just 200. And they're misleading investors again.
- ninth inning — An expression that an event or process is near the end. Referring to a trend in market expansion, a financial analyst may say "We're in the eighth or ninth inning." During a seemingly never-ending crisis, an analyst might remark "No Ninth Inning for Credit Crisis. The president of an academic association may title his farewell column to the members "A Ninth-Inning Farewell".
"'We're in the late innings for U.S. small-cap stocks,'" said Richard Bernstein, chief investment strategist at Merrill Lynch & Co.
- o-fer. If a baseball batter gets 0 hits in 4 at-bats in a game, he's said to go "oh for four," or perhaps even more colloquially, to have an "o-fer." In business, an "o-fer" would be failing to make any sales.
- off base — Unawares or by surprise, usually in the phrase "caught off base"; OED dates to 1935. Meaning misguided, mistaken, or working on faulty assumptions, this usage dates to 1940. Both these uses derive from the situation of a runner being away from a base and thus in a position to being put out (1872).
"The absence of any sharp new angle, any strong new drive in Mr. Roosevelt's messages reflected the fact that he and his Cabinet (only Messrs. Hull. Murphy, Woodring, Edison and Ickes were at hand) had been caught off-base with the rest of the world by the Hitler-Stalin deal, the sudden push for Poland." — "Off-Base", Time, 3 September 1939
"Lotte Ulbricht replied that Madame Yang was way off base. No one was demanding that oppressed nations live happily with their oppressors, she said, and added that Russia was, as always, 'wholeheartedly behind the revolutionary struggles of colonial peoples.'" — "The Women's Club (Marxist Model)", Time, 5 July 1963
- out of left field — See left field.
- pickle or in a pickle. In baseball, to be in a pickle is to be caught in a rundown. In business or government, a pickle is a situation with no good options or escapes from trouble.
Headline: "Olentangy dam puts Columbus in a pickle.
- pinch hit — to act as a substitute or stand-in for someone, especially in an emergency. In baseball, sometimes a substitute batter would be brought in, especially at a crucial point in the game. OED gives the first possible non-baseball use in 1931, and the first definitive non-sport use in 1957.
"In April 2005, after Mr. Jennings took leave of World News Tonight, as the program was then known, to be treated for lung cancer, Mr. Gibson was one of several anchors (including Ms. Sawyer and Elizabeth Vargas) who pinch-hit for him until his death in August 2005, and then continued to rotate in and out of Mr. Jennings’s empty chair for four months." — Bill Carter and Jacques Steinberg, "With Anchors Still Settling In, NBC Feels Pressure at the Top", The New York Times, 1 March 2007
- pitch a shutout — to not allow an opponent any wins. In baseball, a shutout occurs when a pitcher does not allow the opponent any runs.
"The Republican Party pitched a shutout in the South in 2000 and 2004".
- play ball — To get going, or to start. Before every baseball game, the umpire traditionally shouts "play ball" in order to start the game. AHDI dates this usage to the late 1800s. An alternate meaning, "to cooperate", is not explicitly connected to baseball by ADHI, but is so derived by the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms.
"'Eight U.S. attorneys who did not play ball with the political agenda of this administration were dropped from the team,' said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois.
- rain check — a ticket given to a spectator at an outdoor event providing for a refund of his entrance money or admission at a later date, should the event be interrupted by rain; an assurance of a deferred extension of an offer, especially an assurance that a customer can take advantage of a sale later if the item or service offered is not available (as by being sold out); or a (sometimes vague) promise to accept a social offer at an unnamed later date. The latter two meanings derive from the first, which OED states was first used in 1884; its first written entry into non-baseball usage is cited as 1930.
"To deal with frustration among holiday shoppers hunting for its Wii game console, Nintendo Co. and retailer GameStop Corp. are launching a rain check program." — Tribune wires, "Nintendo Wii for Christmas? Shopping advice", Chicago Tribune, 19 December 2007
- rhubarb — A heated argument or noisy dispute; especially, between players on a playing field. Originally the word traditionally muttered by actors in a play to provide background noise. Online Etymology Dictionary attributes the "loud squabble on the field" usage to broadcaster Garry Schumacher in 1938, while OED and CDS both credit sportscaster Red Barber at a baseball game in 1943. OED's first non-baseball cite is 1949.
"If the theater people won their point, it was not much of a point to win. The entire rhubarb, after all, was about nothing but money." — "Dear Me, the Sky Is Falling", Time, 7 June 1963
- right off the bat — immediately; without any delay. OED dates this term to 1914 in Maclean's, a Canadian magazine. An older term, "hot from the bat" dates to the 1888 play Meisterschaft by Mark Twain.
"'It was very clear right off the bat that the loss of Cdk5 made them have a much stronger associative memory,' Professor Bibb said." — Reuters, "Turning Off Suspect Gene Makes Mice Smarter", The New York Times, 29 May 2007
- "Say it ain't so, Joe!" — An expression of disbelief. A reference to the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when the Chicago White Sox lost the World Series on purpose. When Shoeless Joe Jackson was implicated in the scandal, an apocryphal story says that a young fan approached him and said, "Say it ain't so, Joe!"
- screwball — Eccentric, zany, or crazy; OED dates this usage to 1933. The screwball is a rarely used pitch (because of its effect on the arm) that is intended to behave erratically — it "breaks" in the opposite direction a curveball would break.
- seasoned pro — one who maintains and progresses skills acquired through experience, a veteran.
- shutout — see "pitch a shutout".
- step up to the plate, or shortened to step up — To rise to an occasion in life. Refers to when a player must approach home plate to take a turn at batting. OED cites baseball usage in 1875, general usage in 1919.
- strike, as in "strike out", "three strikes, you're out", "a strike against you", "he was born with two strikes against him", etc. — In baseball, a strike is when the batter swings at and misses a pitch, or when the pitch crosses the strike zone without the batter swinging. A batter with three strikes is out and must stop batting. The word strike has crept into common English usage to mean a failure or shortcoming. When a person has "gotten three strikes" and "struck out", they have failed completely. The "three strikes laws" refer to more severe punishments for criminals with a third conviction. Someone seeking romance with another person may "strike out" and fail to impress on a first meeting. See also A swing and a miss.
- switch-hitter — Refers to players who are capable of hitting as a left-handed or right-handed batter (OED, 1948).
- swing and miss. To try and fail, like swinging a bat and missing the ball. Also see "whiff."
"I've swung and missed a lot in my hunt for vintage Levis.
Referring to the disappointing purchase of a living-room couch, "Todd: Hey batter, hey batter, sometimes when you’re looking for the rainbow curve away, you get the heater down the middle. Maybe that’s why you swung and missed.
"The 1988-2000 employment projections: how accurate were they? In the late 1980s, we projected future employment in scores of occupations for the 1988-2000 period. That future is now the past. See where we scored a hit, landed in the ballpark, and--now and then--swung and missed.
- Three strikes law - see Strike.
- took the collar — from the phrase for failing to get any hits, it can be used to indicate failure at something. Referring to the competition between two newspapers, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News:
"The News, you recall, took the collar as the 'failing newspaper' when the two sought Justice Department approval in 2000 to merge their business operations".
- touch base, as in "we will touch base at the meeting" — To ensure everyone has the same information. In baseball, a player who is touching a base is not in danger of being put out. May also be a military term. Another explanation is that a player briefly touches each of the bases when he runs around after hitting a home run; therefore "touching base" is briefly checking in (this is more similar to the meaning in the above example). It may also refer to a seldom enforced rule, 7.08(d) which implies that a runner must touch base after a batter hits a foul ball which goes out of play.
- wheelhouse — from the term for a batter's power zone, usually waist high and over the middle of the plate.
"Carville also said he had not spoken with Hillary Clinton about Richardson's endorsement, but that he was outraged. 'I doubt if Gov. Richardson and I will be terribly close in the future,' he said, but 'I've had my say. . . . I got one in the wheelhouse and I tagged him.'
- whiff — from the baseball term for when a batter swings and misses a pitch, it can be used more generally to mean trying and failing at something. Also see "swing and miss."
"After Richardson whiffed on the question, Joe Biden parked it".
"Yahoo and MSN each whiffed on six questions. There was only one question that baffled all the search engines.
- whole new ball game / brand new ball game ; whole 'nother ball game — In common usage, a "whole new ball game" or "brand new ball game" signifies a drastic turn of events, a completely altered situation. In baseball, an announcer says "it's a whole new ball game" when the trailing team ties the score or takes the lead, usually after being behind by several runs. AHDI traces this to the 1960s. A "whole 'nother ball game" signifies something completely unrelated, different, or irrelevant.