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Baseball, shaper of language

Why linguists love America’s favorite pastime

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As the Red Sox battled the Tigers for a World Series berth, Washington was embroiled in its own version of the Fall Classic. “Just step up to the plate and do it,” Senator Charles Schumer suggested to House Speaker John Boehner, when he wouldn’t send a clean spending bill to the Senate. The Huffington Post described Senate Democrats and the White House as “refus[ing] to play ball” on the piecemeal spending bills that the House did send back. “This isn’t some damn game,” a frustrated Boehner snapped on Oct. 4.

Maybe—but you’d hardly have known that from their language. With the government in shutdown and default looming, politicians turned to America’s preferred metaphor for nearly everything under the sun: baseball.

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For almost as long as America’s favorite pastime has been around, its language has held a favorite spot within American English, too. It’s responsible for some of the most colorful coinages in the vernacular, including butterfingers, flat-footed, daisy cutter, goose egg, and charley horse. It’s also given us many others that have since slipped out of usage: pink-tea performer, fanning-bee, lettuce and tomato hitter, Aunt Susie (a curve ball), banjo hit, and hamfatters (obnoxious fans).

But baseball lingo is more than a way to talk about what happens on the field. The sport has had an outsize influence on everyday English: how we describe our jobs, our relationships, our government shutdowns. Baseball is “probably the most important American indigenous language,” Paul Dickson, author of the authoritative Dickson Baseball Dictionary, told me. Inevitably, linguists have turned to baseball as a quintessentially American corner of English. And over the many years that scholars have been studying the language of baseball, they’ve learned a lot about everything from the regional difference between a “barber” and a “bag puncher” to the odd grammar used by baseball commentators on the radio.

Why is baseball, and not, say, hockey, so integral to the way Americans speak? First off, professional baseball has been around for longer. The first professional leagues were formed in the 1860s, whereas American football and basketball didn’t get organized professionally until the 1890s; hockey came even later than that. By the 1920s, in the golden age of radio and newspaper journalism, the best sportswriters and broadcasters in the country were focusing their considerable energies on covering baseball games—and on coining words to describe peculiar habits of players and coaches, bizarre quirks of ball and bat.

In 1921, when the writer, editor, and lexicographer H.L. Mencken published his book on vernacular American English, “The American Language,” he could feature a selection of baseball slang, including a whole dialogue written in “BaseballAmerican” by sportswriter and satirist Ring Lardner: “You dinked it up there chest high. He couldn’t of got a better cut at it if he’d of tooken the ball in his hand.”

The first baseball linguists were dialectologists, traveling around the country and combing local papers to collect exotic species of regional slang. One 1943 article in the journal American Speech, for instance, observed that an uncatchable hit to the near outfield in the Southern Association was called a “humpback liner,” in the Pacific League a “Japanese liner,” and in the Western league a “drooper.” A big talker in the American League was a “barber,” whereas in the National League he’d be called a “bag puncher.”

Modern-day linguists have looked at baseball lingo to understand race and gender, metaphor, how nicknaming works, and other issues of semantics and sociolinguistics. A seminal paper on sportscaster talk in 1983 examined how sports radio personalities try to build momentum through speech: among other things, inversions (“Rounding first is Pedroia”); idiomatic ways of delivering information (“One and one the count to Ellsbury”); and removal of the copula, or linking verb (“Ortiz holding up at third”). There’s also a large body of work on trash-talking in sports, including a 2007 paper that examined how college baseball players, among other athletes, use insults (“Throw the kid a bucket, he’s throwing up”) to create and sell an outsized identity on the field.

Others have used baseball to look at how our language habits change over time—or don’t. For instance, baseball writers have moaned about the decline of nicknames since the days of “The Sultan of Swat” and “The Wild Elk of the Wasatch,” leaving us today with bland shortenings like “Youk” or “A-Rod.” But Robert Kennedy, a linguist at the University of California Santa Barbara, who has written about nicknaming patterns in hockey and football as well, argues that nicknames among players have always been abbreviated—George Hermann Ruth was “Babe” to his teammates, not Sultan. It tends to be journalists who give out the longer epithets, he argues, and those florid nicknames still exist: take Shane “The Flyin’ Hawaiian” Victorino or Brandon “Baby Giraffe” Belt of the San Francisco Giants.

As every Red Sox fan knows, the team is associated with its own blizzard of distinctive terms, slogans, nicknames, and cheers: the Green Monster, Pesky’s Pole, “Sweet Caroline,” the Impossible Dream, Big Yaz Bread, the Boston Massacre, the Cowboy Up team of 2003 and the Idiots of 2004, and Jonathan Papelbon’s “slutter” pitch, among many others. Linguists have yet to turn their attention to the language of Sox Nation. But according to Kennedy, they should. “There’s something to the nature of Red Sox fandom which I think stands out,” he said. The way Sox fans communicate “would be kind of a ripe thing for someone to look at from an academic point of view. It’s a gap that needs to be filled in the literature.” Or, you might say, it’s time someone stepped up to the plate.

Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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