“It came out of left field”; “she threw me a curve ball.” These sayings — and others like them — might have started “inside baseball”, but they’ve traveled outside the ballpark and taken root in our everyday language, especially in the mouths of North Americans. Here are 20 words and expressions that came right off the bat, or out of left or right field. Please feel free to add any others I’ve missed in the comments section below. [Update, March 2019: a new – 21st – entry has been added: thanks, Candice. Update, Jan 2021: In the run-up to Glossophilia’s 10th birthday we’re republishing our most popular ten posts. Here’s no. 9.]
A broad area of approximation or similarity, a range within which comparison is possible. The OED dates this usage to 1960. The meaning “sphere of activity or influence” is cited from 1963. “In the (right) ballpark”, meaning “within reasonable bounds”, dates back to 1968, and a “ballpark figure” or “ballpark estimate”, one that is reasonably accurate, dates to the year before that, 1967.
“First, ask yourself whether the organisation can afford to put the event on. Is there a ballpark figure of what you want to spend and does this cover all the costs?” — The Guardian
2) Big league (or bush league):
At the highest level (big league), used as a noun or an adjective. OED connects “big league” specifically with American Major League Baseball, and cites its first use in 1899; the non-baseball use appeared first in 1947.
“Can you help a young artist break through to the big league?” — Daily Telegraph
Amateur, unsophisticated, unprofessional (bush league).
“Stealing signs is generally considered a bush league move. Stealing passwords is more likely a felony.” — Lexology.com
3) To cover one’s bases:
To ensure safety; to be prepared for every contingency.
“Jeremy Hunt’s spad, Adam Smith, was good at his job … But his evidence to the Leveson inquiry about his intimate dealing with Camp Murdoch over the BSkyB takeover was pretty damning. Hunt was lucky to survive, but cautious enough to have covered his bases when it mattered.” — The Guardian
4) Curve ball, to throw someone a curve/curve ball:
A surprise, often completely and totally unexpected, and often undesired (North American).
“The U.S. Treasury threw a curve ball at advocates who were pressing to get a woman on the $20 bill, announcing Wednesday that it’s going to put one on a redesigned $10 bill, instead.” — NBC News
5) Get to first/second/third base:
Among American adolescents, baseball bases can be used as euphemisms for the degree of physical intimacy achieved in sexual encounters or relationships. The metaphor became popular in the aftermath of World War II.
“Apparently, lovely little 13-year-old Matt Lucas had taken it preciously upon himself to inform the entire school I, Zara Ann Barrie, had allowed him to go to second base with me, whilst in our seven minutes of hell. … He became an instant super hero, and I became an instant slut.” — Elite Daily
6) Grandstanding (or to grandstand):
Seeking to attract applause or favorable attention from spectators or the media, often in a political setting.
“New Yorkers can rest assured that even as heated negotiations over rent control regulations continue in the assembly, some elected officials are still finding time to demonstrate the true purpose of government — scaring voters with meaningless, symbolic grandstanding.” — Village Voice
7) (Playing) hardball:
Uncompromising and ruthless methods or dealings, especially in politics. As a synonym for baseball, OED dates this use of “hardball” to 1883; its non-baseball use appeared in 1973.
“The IMF’s over-the-top largesse towards Greece explains why the IMF has been forced to play hardball with Greece’s left-wing Syriza government.” — Huffington Post
8) Heavy hitter:
An important or powerful person; a leader.
“But there are larger sidecar-rig builders that sell the bike and sidecar assembled and ready to go. The Russian company Ural is the heavy hitter. It sells about 600 bikes a year—or half its total production—to customers in the U.S.” — Wall Street Journal
9) Hit (or knock) it out of the park:
To achieve complete or spectacular success. Also, to hit a home run. OED dates this idiomatic usage (of “to hit a home run”) to 1965.
“No entertainment brand had a better weekend than Jurassic World, and we have the social stats that show why the dinosaur flick knocked it out of the park.” — Adweek
10) Inside baseball:
Esoteric or highly technical information.
“I think [Hillary Clinton] believes what the deal has at the end of the day is what will matter to the American people and to working people. … All of the rest of this is Washington inside baseball about how we get there. She wants to see the final deal.” — Joel Benenson, Clinton’s senior campaign advisor, on ABC News’s This Week
11) (Out of) left field:
Unusual, unexpected, or irrational; a surprising or unconventional position or style (North American). According to a 1949 article called “The Vocabulary of Tin-Pan Alley Explained” by Arnold Shaw in the journal Notes, this phrase was first used in an idiomatic sense in the early 20th century by song pluggers working in the American music industry to indicate an unexpectedly successful song.
“The surprises here don’t come from the specific flavors. And on paper they seem to make perfect sense: cumin, thyme, tomato, onion, potato, bacon… the one slightly odd addition is cauliflower, and even that doesn’t exactly seem like it’s out of left field.” — Endgadget.com
12) Off base / (Caught) off base:
“Caught off base” means to be taken unawares or by surprise; OED dates this meaning to 1935. The meaning misguided, mistaken, or working on faulty assumptions dates to 1940.
“What are the most common ways people foolishly apply the law of averages? … Plenty of people have been caught off base by the Flaw of Averages in investing, but here is an example that is closer to home.” — San Jose Mercury News
13) To play ball:
See Grammarphobia’s post about the history of the expression “to play ball”. It’s not just about baseball, but when we Americans think of a ball game, we do tend to think about that ball game …
14) Rain check:
An assurance that a customer can take advantage of a sale later if the item or service offered is not available (e.g. by being sold out); or a (sometimes vague) promise to accept a social offer at an unnamed later date. The metaphorical usage dates to as early as 1896.
“How to move your (my) husband from one care home to another, in 20 steps. … 9) Return to your husband and tell him that you’ll both take a rain check on talking about moving.” — The Independent
15) Right off the bat:
At the very beginning; straight away; without delay (North American). The OED dates this usage to 1914 in Maclean’s, a Canadian magazine.
“‘There is not a reason in the world why we cannot grow at a rate of 4 percent a year.’ That’s what Jeb Bush said when he officially announced his presidential run in Miami last week. And right off the bat, most economists trashed the idea.” — CNBC
Eccentric, zany or crazy (person) (North American). OED dates the idiomatic usage of “eccentric” to 1933. “Screwball comedy” is attested from 1938, with reference to Carole Lombard, one of the definitive actresses of the screwball comedy genre.
“Winkler had even popped off about Nazis to the reporters while spiking their story. He’d done it on tape, likening China to the Third Reich in a screwball justification for killing the piece.” — Politico
A pitch that breaks in the opposite direction to a slider or curveball. Depending on the pitcher’s arm angle, the ball might also have a sinking action. The OED cites its first usage in a baseball sense as 1928, in a New York Times article; however, the same dictionary claims that screwball actually originated as the name of a type of delivery in cricket, dating back to 1866.
17) Step up to the plate:
To take action in response to an opportunity or crisis (mainly North American). OED dates this idiomatic usage to 1919.
“With the Hanoverian throne threatened by the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745–6, he knocked together the rousing Occasional Oratorio. Then, as the danger receded, a patriotic mood in the country was there to be tapped. Handel stepped up to the plate with three further oratorios: Judas Maccabaeus, Alexander Balus and Joshua.” — Evening Standard
As in “strike out”, “three strikes, you’re out”, “a strike (or two strikes) against you”: A failure, shortcoming or loss. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the figurative sense of having two strikes against (of a possible three) is from 1938.
“The judge concluded from the notes that any blacks summoned for jury duty ‘had a strike against them before they even entered the courthouse.'” — New York Times
19) Touch base:
To make contact with someone, to inform someone of one’s plans or activities, perhaps in anticipation of an event. To briefly make or renew contact with someone.
“Parents Ian and Jess Booker hope to top the £10,000 mark by the end of the month, thanks to some big donations. Jess said: ‘We have had an amazing week. Last Saturday, Cllr Jeanette Warr came over for tea and cake and just to touch base –what a lovely lady she is.'” — Bognor Regis Observer
20) Whole (or brand) new ball game:
A situation that is completely different from a previous one.
“Speaking about his previous parish, Rev Gordon explained: ‘My first parish was the villages of Kings Worthy and Headbourne Worthy … with a population of 5,500, where we were for nearly 13 years. It was hard work but fun, with new initiatives including employing a community children’s worker; establishing children’s holiday clubs in the summer, Christmas and Easter holidays … and refurbishing the church hall. Tamworth, however, is a whole new ball game. A town rather than a village and with a completely different dynamic.'” — Tamworth Herald
Here’s a 21st just in:
21) Spitballing: A presentation of ideas that may or may not be helpful to solving a problem.
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Hat-tip to Lil for this idea.