Ballpark figure. Slam dunk. Hail Mary. Pass the baton. Ball in your court. These are all idioms we routinely use, yet might not realize are tied to very specific origins in the world of sports. In his latest book, The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors: A Compendium of Competitive Words and Idioms, author Josh Chetwynd—a former pro baseball player—delves into the histories of these words we’ve taken from the realm of athletics and applied to our ordinary lives, including examples of usage from figures like Ice-T, President Obama, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Shakespeare. Here are some of the phrases we use every day that have their beginnings in the sports world.
Though he had a name that was more Willy Wonka than ace pitcher, W. Arthur “Candy” Cummings earned a place in baseball’s Hall of Fame thanks to one special creation. No, it wasn’t a Gobstopper; it was the curveball. Growing up in Brooklyn in the mid-nineteenth century, Cummings became an expert at flinging clam shells with astonishing movement at his local beach. In a eureka moment, he fathomed that if he twirled a baseball similarly it would also swerve.
After four years of trial and error, the eighteen-year-old right-hander mastered his signature pitch in 1867. In what must have been seen as a dark art by many opposing hitters, Cummings’s curveball was so unhittable that in 1871, he was named the sport’s outstanding player by the game’s top writer at the time, Henry Chadwick. The pitch’s unexpected movement was also the impetus for commonly using the word to explain a surprising twist.
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But here’s the curveball on the curveball: at one point, gadflies and even some scientists believed the pitch didn’t truly move and, instead, was an optical illusion. This argument played out in the pages of an unexpectedly wide array of periodicals, including the New Yorker, Life, and the American Journal of Physics. Early tests supported the claim that the ball didn’t really change course. It wasn’t until 1959—nearly two decades after naysayers argued otherwise—that experiments by Lyman Briggs, the director of the U.S. National Bureau of Standards at that time, seemed to end the discussion by proving the curveball did what its name claimed.
Even so, in 2009, there were still physicists who pointed out that while the pitch does dip, it doesn’t alter its path as much as or in the manner we think it does. Of course, Dizzy Dean, who was one of baseball’s great characters from the 1930s and 1940s, would have suffered none of these nuances if he were around today. He once said about curveball skeptics: “Go stand behind a tree, and I’ll hit you with an optical illusion.”
BEHIND THE EIGHT BALL
If you believe a billiards icon, the expression behind the eight ball had nothing to do with the game eight ball. It didn’t even directly involve playing a game of pool.
Charles E. Peterson, the inaugural president of the Billiard Association of America and a fancy shot champion, credited a bank clerk named Allie Flint with concocting the phrase in a pool room in New York City sometime between 1914 and 1916.
Flint and his buddies enjoyed “Kelly Pool,” a game in which each competitor blindly picks a small numbered ball for his eyes only. Balls on the table had to be pocketed in order, and the winner would be the first player to sink his corresponding full-sized ball. The thing is, as they got together during the lunch hour, the group didn’t have a lot of time, and, in truth, they liked the gambling more than the pool playing. So after a while, they decided to cut out the middle activity (playing pool) and focus on the betting. To that end, they’d just pull the small balls out of a shaker bottle, and he who drew the lowest number won the wagered cash.
“Well, this Allie Flint was the original hard-luck kid,” Peterson said in a syndicated 1941 column interview. “He was forever getting a big number. And it seems No. 9 fell his way more than any other. In a game of some 10 or 15 players a number that high was a bust-out. An eight might sometimes luck out—never a nine.”
Hence, Flint lamented after continued losses, “There I am behind the eight ball again,” according to Peterson. “It spread like wildfire all over New York and then over the country. It was the birth of the eight-ball blues.”
The story has a mythical quality to it, and the idiom certainly has meaning in the game of eight ball (being behind that ball is a big strategic disadvantage). It’s also important to note that this metaphor for being in a precarious situation became particularly widespread in the 1930s, after the game of eight ball had acquired a large following. Those facts do leave us a little behind the eight ball, so to speak, as to the phrase’s origin.
In the days preceding pristine oval tracks, horse racing had some pretty wide-open styles of competing. None may have been more outlandish than the wild-goose chase.
Despite what it sounds like, I can assure you no geese were harmed in the enjoyment of this game. Here’s how it worked: One rider would gallop out front, the other participants in hot pursuit. They’d take off in an open field and, after a set distance, the lead would look to shake the pack. To do so he could dart wildly in any direction he wanted. Not only was the group required to follow but they also needed to do so in a set formation and at a set distance (they supposedly looked like a flock of geese, hence the name). If a rider failed to meet his spatial obligations, a judge riding nearby would whip the transgressor.
This type of follow-the-leader racing was common enough in the seventeenth century that a 1621 play was called The Wild Goose Chase. But it existed before then because William Shakespeare figuratively tweaked the haphazard nature of the proceedings in Romeo and Juliet, which is thought to have been written in the 1590s. “Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done,” Mercutio said to Romeo, “for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.”
As goes Shakespeare, so go other writers, and the colloquial use of the phrase showed up regularly to illustrate a quixotic task or path. Among those who wisely used it was the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote in 1851: “Happiness in this world, when it comes, comes incidentally. Make it the object of pursuit, and it leads us a wild-goose chase, and is never attained.”
Punt has meant many things in the English language: It’s the word for a shallow flat-hulled boat good for going down a stream. Punter has been slang for gambler since the early eighteenth century. And, as anyone who’s watched a little football on a Sunday afternoon knows, it’s a form of kicking that involves booting the ball before getting crushed by oncoming defenders.
The latter formulation, which is where we get the figurative use of backing out or giving up, was truly an accident. Most linguists believe that punt in the kicking sense was a mispronunciation of the older word bunt. To bunt meant—and still means in baseball— to strike or push. When rugby began using it around 1845, the B had magically become a P.
Americans co-opted the misspoken word, and punting became a part of football. In the beginning, the sport had various types of punts. There was a punt-out and a punt-on, as well as the garden-variety punt. The surviving fourth-down staple is what inspired people to throw their hands up and say, “I’m punting” when they couldn’t solve a problem. It was used regularly in conversation by the mid-1960s.
UNEXPECTED PHRASE FROM BOWLING: THERE’S THE RUB
If this phrase, which means an obstacle or difficult situation, sounds familiar, it’s because it comes from William Shakespeare’s famed “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet. (“To die—to sleep. To sleep! perchance to dream; ay, there’s the rub.”)
But what exactly is a rub? No, it isn’t something for basting meat. Shakespeare actually borrowed it from lawn bowling. While most lords of great British manors had gardeners to make sure their bowling greens were baby smooth, the wear and tear could lead to some bumps or nicks. These issues with the surface could impede the movement of the bowl and were known as rubs.
This bowling nuisance clearly intrigued Shakespeare as, even before Hamlet, the author made use of rubs metaphorically in Richard II (“’Twill make me think the world is full of rubs”).
When a coworker kindly tees up a question at a meeting, that sweet soul is trying to make it easy for you to answer with eloquence and grace (whether you succeed is on you). The Scottish expression got its start in 1744 via golf’s original code. The rule makers were so grateful for a little ball elevation on an opening shot that they referenced use of a tee in each of its first three rules.
As for where golf’s fathers plucked the word tee, that’s a bit of a mystery. Originally written teaz, it popped up in 1646—well before the game was formalized. Theories on its source range from a Gaelic word for house to a Dutch term that seems to describe the tee’s shape.
Using teeing up to describe readying a ball for an opening shot was a known expression at the end of the nineteenth century. Its figurative use was in print by the 1930s.
Interestingly, a couple of other tee-related phrases almost certainly did not get their start on the links. The Oxford English Dictionary posits that teed off is an offshoot of peed off, which is a shortening of pissed off. This has a logic to it, because while there are many bad golfers, it would take a supremely feeble duffer to tee off so poorly, so often, to spawn this idiom.
As for suits you to a tee (and variations, which sometimes replace tee with just the letter T), the little wooden golf peg doesn’t appear to have any connection to “fitting you perfectly.” More likely is that tee relates to a T-shirt or even solely to the letter T. The latter may indicate that it’s a variation of an older phrase to a tittle, which means “down to a very small part of something.”
UNEXPECTED PHRASE FROM HORSE RACING: DEAD RINGER
Used today to describe a person who’s the spitting image of another, a dead ringer was firmly part of horse-racing parlance near the end of the nineteenth century.
At first blush, the expression makes some vague sense. Dead is still used as slang for being precisely spot-on (think dead center or dead heat). Ringer also remains common code for a substitute of greater quality (as in “Sweet—our rec basketball team just picked up a ringer with NBA experience”). Put them together and you can sort of see a phrase combining “exact” and “replacement” developing.
But how did ringer get its meaning? A popular thought is that the word descended from an old saying, to ring the changes, which was used to describe when a seller secretly provided an inferior product instead of the expected goods.
This rings true (apologies) when you understand how it was used in its track context. In short, horses known as dead ringers were put in races by gamblers looking to cheat the system. The scam involved replacing a good-running horse with a nag lookalike just before post time. Those involved would then get good odds on another horse, knowing the supposed strong runner was anything but that.
Still, mysteries remain. It’s unclear how our doppelgänger use of dead ringer dropped the unscrupulous connotation from the races. And, as far as a ringer (of the non-dead variety) goes, we don’t know how the term developed into one in which the replacement was an improvement. Finally, did the phrase truly start in horse racing? Newspapers were talking about human look-alikes being dead ringers around the same time the expression was first being applied to horses.
Ask a Hollywood producer for two good rules for moviemaking, and you’ll probably be told to ratchet up the drama and cut down the running time. Any studio chief who surveyed how the story arc for the marathon developed would surely say, “Mission accomplished.”
The original tale of the Greek hero Pheidippides came from the great historian Herodotus, who put quill to parchment about sixty years after the famous Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. Herodotus’s retelling fades in on the great city-state Athens, recognizing it must engage a much more heavily manned Persian army than expected in armed conflict on the plains of Marathon. Looking for backup, the generals called on a legendary runner named Pheidippides to sprint to Sparta to plead for help.
Pheidippides took off by foot and covered 140 miles (or more, depending on the source you believe), getting to Sparta in two days. The Spartans agreed to help, but were delayed for religious reasons (they couldn’t travel during a full moon). When they eventually got to the battle site, they saw the Athenians had already bravely repelled the Persians, making Pheidippides’s journey a bit anticlimactic.
Future writers gave the whole thing a reboot. Hundreds of years later, authors Lucian and Plutarch each wrote about the event, whipping the plot into a different shape. The new story had the runner (who in some retellings wasn’t named Pheidippides) scampering a much shorter distance—from Marathon to Athens. His job was to report that the Athenian army had prevailed against the Persians. After reporting, “Rejoice, we have won,” he dropped dead. Fade to black. Cue applause.
We rely on this latter rendition—and its approximate distance from Marathon to Athens—today because that account became popular in the nineteenth century. Poet Robert Browning deserves a lot of credit for this. Seventeen years before the first modern Olympiad in 1896, he wrote a piece called Pheidippides, using the updated tale as inspiration. Its plot stuck with the organizers of the games.
The 26.2-mile distance for the marathon wasn’t set until 1908, and its use as an expression for any sort of long experience began taking shape by 1915—though it doesn’t appear to have been in regular idiomatic use until the middle of the twentieth century.
Excerpted with permission from The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors: A Compendium of Competitive Words and Idioms by Josh Chetwynd published by Ten Speed Press.
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