How baseball terminology impacts the interpreter’s work.

October 4, 2016 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It is baseball postseason time in the United States once again, and with the playoffs and World Series excitement, American speakers resort to baseball analogies and terms more frequently. Some of you may be very knowledgeable on the American national pastime as baseball is widely known, but many others may not know enough or maybe do not even like the game. For this reason, I have decided to tackle one of the most American and complex subjects to interpret: the terminology of baseball.

The first thing we should settle is the name of America’s Major League Baseball championship series: “The World Series”.  To those of us who grew up with this wonderful sport, and after hearing the championship referred to as the “World Series” during our entire lives, the small detail that this “worldly” event only involves teams from the United States (and one from Canada since 1969) tends to be overlooked; however, to the rest of the world, this seems a little odd to say the least. Well, for my fellow interpreters who now live in the States, and for those of you who are abroad and have never understood the reason for such as international title, the most widely accepted explanation is as follows:

In 1904 the sports publication “Reach Guide” reported on the first official “World Championship Series”, played in 1903, using a name coined by the “Spalding Baseball Guide” in 1886 when referring to the championship game between the champions of the two existing professional baseball leagues: Chicago and St. Louis. “Spalding” wrote that since both teams were already “Champions of the United States” in their respective leagues, the winner of this post-season championship series would be the “World Champion”, therefore, the event should be called the “World Championship Series”.  Eventually the title for the championship series was shortened, and when the “Reach” and “Spalding” Guides were replaced by “The Sporting News Guide” (that I remember from my childhood) the name became the “World Series”. This has been the official name of the championship since 1964. So you see, there is nothing mysterious behind the peculiar name. In case you are wondering, the only non-American team ever to win the “World Series” are the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993.

We should now turn our attention to the most common American idiomatic expressions that come from baseball terminology. I will quote each one of them, and then I will give the baseball meaning and its application to our everyday life in the United States.

  • “To get to base”. In baseball, a team “scores” one point, called “a run” when a player is able to get to a plate called “home” after running through all three bases (respectively named: first, second and third base) in a diamond-shaped court called the “infield”.  Getting to first base is somewhat easier than going to second, and second comes before third base. When a player cannot hit the ball for three consecutive good pitches, he “strikes out” and cannot get to any base, not even first.

After World War II when many young Americans came back to their country, they arrived in a prude society where talking about sex was taboo. For this reason, these youngsters created a metaphor to describe their “sexual adventures” without disturbing the ways of the older generation. Because there were different levels to physical intimacy with a partner, Americans came up with the following “code words” that continue to be used today:

“Getting to first base” meant that the couple got to kiss, especially French kissing (mouth to mouth).

“Getting to second base” means that there was skin-to-skin contact, oftentimes it means that there was touching and kissing of the breasts.

“Getting to third base” meant that there was some touching below the waist, and even oral sex.

“To score” meant that there was intercourse; and

“To strike out” is used to describe that there was no foreplay or any other sexual activity.

  • “Switch hitter”. All baseball players get a chance to get to base by facing the other team and hitting the baseball with a bat. The ball is thrown by the main defensive player of the other team called the “pitcher”. Pitchers can be left-handed or right-handed and so can the batters.  There are a few players who can bat as a righty and as a lefty, but in baseball, instead of calling them ambidextrous, they are called “switch-hitters”.

In American society, the term “switch-hitter” is also used to refer to a bisexual individual. A homosexual person is also referred to as “playing for the other team”.

  • “Homerun”. “Hitting it out of the ballpark”. There are times when the batter hits the ball so hard that it leaves the playing field and ends up behind the fence. When that happens, the player can simply run around the infield, step on each base, and continue all the way home to score. This play, very exciting and powerful, can change the game in a second, and it is called a “homerun”, and because the baseball physically leaves the baseball field, and sometimes even the stadium, it is very common to describe this play as “hitting it out of the ballpark”.  By the way, baseball stadiums are not called stadiums, but “ballparks”,

Outside baseball, this metaphor is often used to describe a situation when an individual does something very good and spectacular, pleasantly surprising everybody, and leaving critics and opponents speechless. “Johnny had a wonderful presentation at the meeting today. He hit it out of the ballpark”.

  • “Grand Slam”. When a player hits a “homerun”, and all three bases were taken by his teammates,   they all score; therefore, instead of getting ahead by one run, their team goes up by four runs (one for each player on first, second, and third base, plus the batter who hit the ball out of the ballpark earning the right to go around the bases and score). This is the highest number of runs that a team can score from a single play. The play to describe the four runs scored due to a homerun is called a “grand slam” and to many fans, it is the most exciting play in baseball, as it can turn the score around in the blink of an eye.

In American society, when a person does something very important very quickly, and turns around public opinion, a business transaction, a college exam’s outcome, or anything g else in life, that person has hit a “grand slam”.

  • “Swinging for the fences”. “Homeruns” are difficult, but some baseball players seem to want to hit one every time they face the other team. For this reason, every single time a baseball is thrown by the pitcher, instead of settling for making contact and getting to first base, they swing as hard as they can as if attempting to hit the baseball over the fence and score a run. This very aggressive, but not necessarily smart, action by a player is referred to as “swinging for the fences”.

In the United States when somebody is trying to get something on a very ambitious manner, and sometimes out of desperation or with a “win at all cost” attitude, it is said that this person came out “swinging for the fences”.

  • “On Deck”. When baseball players are not on the field, instead of sitting on a bench by the sidelines like they do in football or basketball, they wait in a trench-like space below field-level assigned to each team. This place is called the “dugout”. When a team is at bat, its players must follow a pre-established order to face the other team called the “line-up”. For this reason, the players that are not batting at the moment wait inside the “dugout”, with the exception of the player who will bat next. This player is allowed to emerge from his trench to the field level to warm up.  Because this resembles the lifestyle of old sailors who used to live below the ship’s main deck, it is said that the player who is warming up before batting is “on deck”.

When someone in America is next for anything: giving a speech, taking an exam, getting a promotion, and so on, it is said that the person is “on deck”.

  • “Out Of Left Field”. Besides the players in the “infield” where the three bases and home plate are.  There is a larger section of the baseball field that is farther away from the place where the batter stands and the pitcher throws. This section is called the “outfield” and it is guarded by three “outfielders” who are distributed one to the right, one to the left, and one to the center. They are the last line of defense against the batter, they see less action than the “infielders”, and they are hard to see because of their distance from home plate.  There are two baseball parks still in use today that are over 100 years old. One of them is Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs.  When the park was built over a century ago, there was an insane asylum in left field, so when something crazy or unforeseen happened, it was described as “out of left field”.

Nowadays, it is very common to hear Americans refer to a sudden, surprising, or unexpected event as coming “out of left field”.  “Mary asked for a raise. Just like that, she came out of left field”.

  • The “Bullpen”. As I mentioned before, the pitcher is the most important player in baseball. He is involved in every single play. For this reason, most pitchers do not play a full game, there are substitutions by other pitchers who are called “relief pitchers”. Because a pitcher must participate in every play, relief pitchers must be ready to perform as soon as they enter the game.  To be able to do this, they first warm up in a special section of the ballpark outside the baseball field. Presently, many baseball parks have located these warming up sections by the side of the field, but in the past, old ballparks used to have an enclosed location for each team where relief pitchers would warm up. This way, the opposing team would not know who was about to enter the game as a relief pitcher, and they would not know whether to get ready for a right-handed or a left-handed pitcher.  The area where pitchers used to warm up evoked images of a corral where animals would be kept contained before coming out to the fields; it especially reminded us of a pen where bulls are kept before a bullfight, and when released, they run into the ring. Relief pitchers do the same, once they get word that they are entering the game, they come out to the field like bulls. This is the reason why the pitchers’ warming up area is called the “bullpen”.

Today in the United States, an office workspace populated with desks without any separating walls or cubicles, resembling a corral where everybody is piled up, are called “bullpens”. “Roy was demoted at work and he now works in the bullpen”.

  • “Extra Innings”. A very important characteristic of the sports played in the United States is the finality of the outcome. Americans want to see a team win every time they play or watch a sport. A tie is considered rewarding mediocrity and it is not popular with U.S. sports’ fans (thus one of the main reasons why Americans are not crazy about “soccer” like the rest of the world seems to be). A baseball game is divided in 9 innings, and the team who scored more runs by the end of the ninth inning wins the game; however, when the score is tied after nine innings, the players must continue to play until there is a winner. Some baseball games have lasted over 20 innings before a team scores and wins. The innings played after the original 9 are completed are called “extra innings”.

These days, any continuation beyond the expected or scheduled time is referred to as “extra innings”“Those negotiations were tough. The parties went into extra innings before an agreement was reached late last night.”

  • “Home-field Advantage”. In baseball the two teams have the same opportunities to score by taking turns to bat. The visiting team goes first in what is called the “top of the inning”, and the home club follows during the “bottom of the inning”. Because baseball is played in 9 innings, the home team will always have an opportunity to score last. This gives them an advantage over the visitor, besides the obvious benefits of playing on the field they are familiar with and before their own fans.

On everyday life, Americans say they have “home-field advantage” when an event takes place in familiar surroundings, before a friendly crowd, or when their participation is the last one on the schedule.  “The meeting will take place in California, and that gives us home-field advantage”.

  • “To Throw a Curve (Ball)”. The pitcher has to face all players from the opposing team and his job is to get them out of the field before they hit the ball and reach first base. To do it, pitchers have an arsenal of different throws that they use to keep batters guessing what they will face next. There are fastballs, sliders, changeups, knuckleballs, cutters, splitters, and curveballs.  If a pitcher has been throwing several fastballs to the batter, he may surprise him by throwing him a curveball next. Curveballs are difficult to hit because as the name indicates, the ball moves around.

When Americans face a particularly difficult issue, problem or obstacle because of someone else, they often say that someone “threw them a curve” or a “curveball”“The teacher really threw me a curveball (or a curve) with that surprise quiz he gave us last week”.

  • “To Walk”. In baseball, a pitcher needs to defend his team by getting rid of the opposing team’s batters. To end an inning, a pitcher has to get three opponents out. Every batter that faces the pitcher will have to hit the baseball and reach first base before he gets three good throws and misses them all either by swinging the bat without hitting the ball, or by letting a good throw go by him without hitting the baseball. These pitches are called “strikes”. On the other hand, the pitcher has to get the batter to hit the ball to one of his teammates so he can be out before reaching base, or he has to throw three strikes before he throws four bad pitches outside of the strike zone which are called “balls”. When the pitcher throws four bad “balls” before he gets the batter out, the batter can take first base. This is called a “walk”.

Outside baseball, when somebody gets a benefit not by own merits, but by the mistakes of others, it is said that she or he “walked”.

  • “Balk”. In baseball, when a pitcher has an opposing team’s runner on base, he can attempt to sack him by throwing the ball to a teammate who has to touch the runner before he returns to the base. For a throw to a base to be legal, the pitcher has to throw the baseball in a single, continuous movement. He cannot hesitate, because if he does, the runner will be awarded an extra base. This hesitation is called a “balk”.

In everyday life, it is said that a person “balks” when she or he is hesitant to accept an idea or proposal.  “The CEO balked at the idea of merging with the competitor”.

No doubt that there must be several other idiomatic expressions that were taken from America’s national pastime and are used by regular folks to describe an action, an attitude, or a person they encounter in their daily lives, but I hope that this article at least gave you an idea of both, the beautiful game of baseball and what all those metaphors mean, so the next time you are in the booth and you hear one of them, you will know exactly where the expression came from, and what it presently means. I now ask you to please share with the rest of us any other baseball terms that you know and I probably missed.

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§ 2 Responses to How baseball terminology impacts the interpreter’s work.

  • Franco Gamero says:

    Excellent summary. I’ve tried and tried, but I just can’t have the passion for this game that others have.
    If you press me, I have to provide a reasonable explanation for my lack of “understanding” of the game.
    It has to do with a game that ends as a “NO HITTER”.
    Supposedly a great “ending” deserving praise for the pitcher.
    A game in which “NOTHING HAPPENED”.
    Just a little humor.
    In grade school (De La Salle) we used to play a game that we called BATA. Baseball without a bat and with a soft tennis size ball that one would hit with a fist.
    I realize now that the game was called BATTER.
    Just like other games, very influential in the terminology in other languages, and other expressions that must be understood by interpreters and immigrants.
    Thanks for batting for us.

  • Sasha Spencer says:

    Thank you for the beautiful summary.
    I would add “to play for the major leagues” and “out of someone’s league” to the list.
    As you mentioned in your summary, baseball has several tiers of leagues: Major Leagues and Minor Leagues. Minor Leagues are broken down into further tiers: AAA (triple-A), AA (double-A), and A (single-A).
    All baseball players want to play for the major leagues because this is the highest level of the team they can possibly play for.
    “To play for the major leagues” means that someone made a breakthrough in his/her career. For example, when a journalist was working for a small newspaper and then gets hired by a large national daily, he or she is “playing for the major leagues” now.
    “Out of your league” means that you are not good enough for something. The expression is often used when people speak about dating. If someone is “out of your league”, it means that the person is too good/beautiful/popular for you to date.

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