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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: baseball


(1970’s | militarese | “(friendly) warning,” “word to the wise,” “alert”)

The coupling of this phrase with the indefinite article is a relatively new phenomenon, first becoming noticeable in the late seventies. (One of the problems with my research methods is that they give me no way of estimating how long a given expression has been in oral circulation before the press gets wind of it.) As far as I can tell, we owe it to the military-intelligence complex, with the earliest instances I found of “heads-up” or elaborations like “heads up alert” — attributed to intelligence agents in a 1979 Washington Post article — all invoking that sort of source. LexisNexis suggests that it did not become ordinary until after 2000; my memory is uncertain, but that seems right. “Heads-up” (not everyone hyphenates) struck me recently as I was composing an e-mail to my boss, with whom I typically use fairly formal language and tone. But under the circumstances, “heads-up” was the only expression that fit, which caused me to realize that it has filled, or possibly created, a niche in our speech. That is not true of every expression I cover.

Baseball players have been using “heads up!” as an imperative, or interjection, for over a hundred years, and it has always meant something closely related: look alive, or be ready for anything. Or as an adjective: “heads-up play(er),” for example. Only the noun is new, and it seems such a logical extension that it’s hard to cavil at. (The verb, when one accompanies the noun phrase, is invariably “give” or “is.”) One of the defining characteristics of the heads-up is that it be informal; not quite defining but pretty standard is the idea that it comes from an ally and that it is given quietly, without fanfare. Like its cousin “wake-up call,” it portends bad or at least sobering news; something’s about to happen that you have to deal with, like it or not. (A “wake-up call” is a heads-up on a mass scale, only unfriendly and very public.)

“Heads Up” gets used fairly often as a name. Google dug up the following examples, hardly an exhaustive list: a 1929 Broadway musical, a marketing firm in Atlanta, a New York Times travel section column, a “child development center” in the Bay Area, a bicycle safety program in New York City, and several beauty salons. (Shouldn’t they be called “Heads Back”?) A long-lived blog called “HeadsUp” critiques mainly right-wing political journalism. And it’s a game made popular by the Ellen DeGeneres Show, which resembles the game show “Password” from my youth, except you have to guess celebrities instead of plain old words. If you ask me, the components of this gallimaufry have very little in common, and little reason to use such a potent expression as “heads-up” in their titles. Because the phrase effectively orders the audience to pay attention to what happens next, using it is a cheap trick — when you hear it, you can’t help but listen for a minute, until you realize you’re being manipulated. No doubt forgivable in an ancient Broadway show, but shouldn’t we be above it now?


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(2000’s | athletese | “strong suit (or point)”)

A nautical term, you say? As we use it today, it comes out of baseball lingo, where it dates back at least as far as 1959, according to Dickson’s Baseball Dictionary. I remember hearing it in my childhood. It is the part of the strike zone (usually) from which the batter can hit the ball the hardest. If a batter hits a home run on a belt-high fastball, the announcer will say, “He got one in his wheelhouse,” or something along those lines. That sense is identical, mutatis mutandis, to the way the word is used today in arts, politics, corporate life, even sports other than baseball. It’s your area of greatest strength or talent, what you do best. The spread seems to have happened between 2000 and 2010, according to LexisNexis; I don’t remember hearing “wheelhouse” in such contexts until after 2010.

Funny thing about this word, baseball-wise. Only hitters have a wheelhouse, not pitchers or fielders. No matter how many times Ozzie Smith made a diving stop in the hole, no announcer ever said, “Another ground ball in Ozzie’s wheelhouse!” So your wheelhouse is a matter of offense, not defense, and in fact a power hitter is much more likely to have one than a singles hitter. The other thing about a wheelhouse is that’s it’s personal. Every hitter, and therefore every singer, mid-level administrator, and aspiring governor has their own. Although a baseball team might be successful if most of its players have similar wheelhouses (just about everybody likes a belt-high fastball), no organization can be. Even a small business requires people who are good at different things. But otherwise the resemblance holds: an assignment or issue in your wheelhouse is your chance to do your part for the team, excel at your share of the work, in short, to succeed.

As hinted in the opening sentence, “wheelhouse” is not even really a baseball expression to begin with. It’s a synonym for “pilothouse” on a boat, which is more like the nerve center than the part where you bash away at your favorite task. But, as one writer suggests, “when a captain is in his or her wheelhouse, that’s a place of command and control. If you’re in your wheelhouse, that’s any situation in which you feel comfortable.” That’s plausible, sort of, but the truth is the identification of a wheelhouse with the batter’s preferred location for a nice, juicy fastball doesn’t make any sense. Dickson suggests that it has to do with a hitter wheeling the bat around with a strong swing, which is not very convincing.

Why, then, have arts writers and artists embraced an unintuitive and relatively obscure baseball expression? Baseball has infiltrated our language to a great extent, it’s true — no one who has spent much time in America fails to understand “three strikes,” “off base,” or “screwball” — but artists and their camp followers normally spread therapese across the language, not sports talk. (Although “raise the bar,” popular among educators, is an exception.) I can’t think of other contemporary examples of this sort of thing. Some sporting expressions have become general property, even if the spread didn’t start with arts writers: “slam dunk,” “dream team,” “real MVP.” I doubt it’s a matter of sounding sweaty and manly; it’s probably more about sounding ruddy and vigorous. Athletic locutions tend to pack punch, pizzazz, and a touch of passion, or at least vehemence, which makes them attractive to anyone looking to add pace to their prose.

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real MVP

(2000’s | athletese | “unsung hero”)

The Most Valuable Player Award was invented in 1931 by the Baseball Writers Association of America (majestically abbreviated BBWAA). I have not been able to determine when the abbreviation “MVP” slipped out of its baseball backwater and into the mainstream of the language. I recall hearing it as a boy and knowing what it meant (I was a baseball fan) and assuming that the adults around me understood it, too. That’s a gap of forty-plus years; how many of those years went by before most people grasped the expression?

Although the formal name of the award might lead you to believe otherwise, baseball’s MVP is loosely considered synonymous with the best player (often on the pennant winner), or at least the one with the gaudiest statistics. There are many ways a player can be valuable to the team that don’t attract much attention, and such traits almost never get considered when it’s time to vote for the MVP. The expression “real MVP” takes that a step further by acknowledging directly someone heretofore unrecognized. Arguably, the real MVP is the person who should have been the MVP all along, but wasn’t because most of us fall for the cheap and flashy. Thus, “real MVP” implies that the nominal winner did not deserve the award. The more valuable player either was truly better in some way, or provided essential support.

A fine example of the latter came from Kevin Durant, in an acceptance speech that has done more than anything else to push “real MVP” into non-athletic contexts. While the word was available for such uses before Durant came along, it had remained primarily an athlete’s term for decades, mostly used to refer to another player, but possibly to a coach, the fans, or even a handicapped kid that inspired the team. Durant cited his mother as “the real MVP” upon being presented with the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award because without her devotion, work, and self-denial, he never would have reached the pinnacle. The fact that the internet soon swallowed the phrase and vomited it back as a series of memes each more trivial than the last in no way diminishes Durant’s sincerity or character, or his powers of propulsion; the phrase has become much more common since he gave a shout-out to his mother in 2014.

My sense is that “real MVP” was little used outside sports talk before 2000, and probably for a while after it, too. It spread quietly during the first decade of the millennium, but it came more naturally to refer to a designated driver, or your sainted mother, or anyone who gets you out of a jam that way in 2010 than in 2000. In everyday speech, “real MVP” need not imply injustice or misunderstanding. It names anyone who performs a valuable service for one person or a number of people. The sense that the real MVP is laudable, even essential, remains, but not the notion that a less deserving person gets all the publicity.

For the sake of completeness I note that MVP also stands for “minimum viable product,” a barebones version of whatever your big idea is that allows you to test its feasibility or popularity. Such use of the abbreviation seems unlikely to overtake the established phrase within the next millennium, but if it does, I’ll take credit.

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dream team

(1990’s | athletese | “crack team or group”)

The second moldy oldie in a row, this term was well established by 1980 — it turns up in Google Books before 1950 — but primarily in athletic contexts, as in the high school basketball All-American team. Next came the arts, particularly writing about cinema, in which it referred to a group (usually a pair) of actors that either had appeared together in a film, or the critic merely wished they had. “Dream Team” was the title of a 1989 film, an ensemble comedy about mental patients, and well before that Joe McGinniss had used it as the title of a novel in 1972. So it’s not like there was anything novel about it when the revolution came in 1992, led by the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team. A spike in the use of the term coincided with a modestly significant grammatical evolution: the switch from indefinite article to definite was the inevitable result of THE Dream Team’s hijacking of the phrase. Before that, it was much more common to talk about “a dream team.” Ever since, while it’s still possible to use the indefinite article, you can’t really use the expression without reminding everyone of Magic, Larry, Michael, Scottie, and the rest. Another change: after 1992, the expression has almost invariably referred to a functioning group of players that actually competes against other teams. Before that, it was as likely to mean an imaginary team, like an all-time all-star squad, which could never actually be assembled to play a game.

Because of the longstanding use of “dream” as an adjective to mean “best imaginable,” this phrase doesn’t require a complicated origin story. The rhyme helped make it memorable, of course, like “supergroup” or “Mod Squad.” The most noteworthy thing about “dream team” is that it almost always refers to a temporary or even ad hoc assemblage, usually in response to a singular crisis or at least a big event, like the Olympics. Generally, we envision a roster of standouts in a particular field — doctors, fund managers, musicians forming a band — drawn together by a central agency or just uniting of their own accord for a specific purpose and a limited time, after which the team disbands and everyone goes back to what they were doing.

There are other things that “dream team” could mean, right? It can — but rarely does — signify the sports franchise one has loved all one’s life (“team of my dreams,” like “girl of my dreams”), or some kind of organization devoted to helping kids realize their ambitions. Why not a group of psychoanalysts working over a patient’s unconscious, or a foundation dedicated to ending the practice of judging people by the color of their skin, or a committee committed to passing the DREAM Act? The sense of “short-lived congeries of top performers” has made such plausibilities more or less impossible, not to mention eliminating the entire field of imaginary teams. Maybe of all the possibilities, that’s the signified that most needed a signifier. There are precedents in the movies — “The Magnificent Seven” and “Ocean’s 11” both came out in 1960, oddly enough — and the basic idea is as old as the Iliad. The persistence of the concept has driven out other possible associations. I don’t know anything about science fiction, but wasn’t there a story or novel about beings who work together to get inside the heads of certain characters (or everybody, what the hell) and control their dreams, whether doing emergency repairs like a utility crew or manipulating them for gain like evil geniuses? I have the feeling I’m describing the plot of a sci-fi monument without having the faintest idea what it is. Faithful readers?

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(1990’s | journalese (sports) | “percentage baseball”)

Few of my few devoted readers being baseball fans, it behooves me to offer some explanation of this odd word. (Don’t you always look for chances to use “behoove” in a sentence?) “Sabermeterics” refers to rigorous statistical analysis, which begins by establishing a reliable set of numbers measuring the performance of single players and entire teams and then reinterpreting them, taking them apart, recombining them, and generating new statistics, thought to be more revealing than the old ones. The word itself is an eponym, “saber” being derived from the acronym SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, founded in 1971 as a small organization devoted to using statistics to understand baseball history. Nowadays, sabermetrics attracts more attention as a way of helping executives and managers arrive at the most effective ways to evaluate and use their players, or decide how much they should be paid or traded for. Now other sports have been bitten by the bug, and the concept may even be familiar to non-fans; many baseball abstainers have heard of Michael Lewis’s book “Moneyball,” an account of the Oakland A’s under general manager Billy Beane, who adopted sabermetric insights wholesale and built a successful team with limited means. (If you missed that, there was a Simpsons episode in 2010.)

The term has always been credited to one of its leading practitioners, Bill James, who has — not single-handedly — revolutionized our understanding of baseball. (Full disclosure: my copy of his “New Historical Baseball Abstract” is pretty much disbound due to wear.) He began a one-man samizdat in the seventies, producing mimeographed collections of statistics and evaluations of major-league players; within a few years, the annual “Baseball Abstract” was picked up by a major publisher. Since then, he has written several compendious reference books that have laid out new frameworks for understanding how baseball works. In 2003 the Boston Red Sox hired him as a special advisor, a post he retains. He has indeed created some very complex and arcane statistics, but they have become common currency in discussions of baseball.

There are two inspiring stories here: James’s rise from outsider devoid of credentials to respected insider; and the triumph of empiricism and scholarship. The first proves that such storybook careers remain possible, but the latter, it seems to me, has wider cultural import. The SABR scholars, with little to offer except patient, unremunerated toil, have applied a version of the scientific method to baseball, emphasizing observation, data gathering, and statistical analysis in order to reach well-founded formulas for success. And to a great extent, it has worked. Baseball teams can no longer ignore sabermetrics; the insights of those nerdy statisticians — “statistorians” as a pre-James pioneer, L. Robert Davids, called them — have become so standard that ignoring them is a form of malpractice. It may give us a flicker of faith that in the face of a rising tide of obscurantism, that kind of work still proves its worth and compels respect, even in a game as anti-intellectual and tradition-bound as baseball.

Like the sciences, sabermetrics ultimately proves itself through successful prediction. Why is it that sabermetrics gets more credit than, say, climate science, despite the fact that the broad claims made by climatologists thirty years ago have been borne out? It’s a much smaller audience, for one thing; most people don’t care enough about baseball to set any store by ingenious statistical hermeneutics, but nearly everyone has an opinion about climate change. Baseball has a very long tradition of statistical study, and there have always been a few “figure Filberts,” as people like James used to be called; outside of baseball, most people don’t understand statistical analysis and don’t hold with it, unless it happens to confirm what they already believed. In baseball, the goal is to win, and winning is clearly defined and easily measured. That is much less true in the greater world, where a lot more people win by casting doubt on human-caused climate change than by taking issue with sabermetricians.

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designated driver

(1980’s | bureaucratese?)

A new expression that has stayed put, sober and responsible. “Designated driver” first poked its head out in 1982, says LexisNexis, and its sense has never changed. Metaphorical uses are uncommon, and literal uses not much less so. Oh, a race car pilot may be “designated driver” of a particular car for a particular race, though it’s not clear which part of speech “designated” is in such a case. Now and then a paid driver (bus, ambulette, taxi) winds up being referred to as a designated driver. But the set phrase that we grasp as second nature today is pure eighties. It grew slowly but steadily with the rise of the movement against drunk driving.

Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (soon changed to “Drunk Driving”) was founded in 1980 by actual mothers whose children had been killed in accidents caused by drunk drivers. It has been enormously successful, an example of a do-gooder public-service organization that has won respect (or deference, which is more important) across the political spectrum and changed a nation’s behavior. Plenty of people still drink and drive, but they do it much more cautiously than they did two generations ago. Attitudes have changed, and a multidisciplinary structure has been built to make driving under the influence shameful and criminal. Part of that structure is the designated driver, born (in the U.S., at least) near the beginning of the eighties, worming its way into beer commercials by the end of the decade, by which time all us reprobates had learned the expression. Actually, Congress declared “National Drunk and Drugged Driving Awareness Week” as early as December 1982, and the phrase was part of the proclamation. The first use recorded in LexisNexis (October 27, 1982) is due to St. Louis Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter, who had just won the World Series MVP Award and was known at the time as a player who had completed drug rehabilitation successfully (“drugs” included alcohol, as Porter was careful to point out). “‘I didn’t even drink in high school,’ he said with a smile. ‘I was what you’d call the designated driver.'” I myself was in college during those crucial early years when the new expression was struggling to make its way, and I don’t remember hearing it then, but may have. I do remember “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”

Porter’s use of the expression is significant, not just as a matter of historical precedence, but in heralding a radical change in the group behavior of young men. Simply put, non-drinkers became extremely popular when the designated driver took its place in the arsenal of defenses against drunk driving. For decades, centuries, teetotalers were objects of scorn and generally avoided (ironically, the old insult “wet,” meaning something like “lame” as we use it today with an extra touch of wimpiness, fit teetotalers nicely). But when you need a designated driver, that’s exactly the guy you want to bring along — he was gonna drink soda all night anyway. (Wise friends repay the designated driver occasionally, perhaps by providing wingman services.)

“Designated” is a bureaucrat’s word, generally used to refer to something named or assigned by legal authority. It was thus a rather odd choice for the new line-up spot created in 1973 by the American League. (The player was assigned to the Designated Hitter position by the manager, so it wasn’t unreasonable. At first, one heard “Designated Pinch Hitter,” but that disappeared quickly, just as well, since it was confusing.) The designated hitter is the most likely — actually the only — forerunner I can think of. The “designated driver” is not named by authority, generally. Someone within the group has to volunteer, or members of the group take turns. More like a nominated driver, at least if being nominated consists of drawing the short straw.

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(1990’s | businese | “on the low side,” “sneaky,” “under-“)

The point about this word was that it implies deception; it goes with a word like “underhanded,” even though it is not a synonym. Space is opening up to use the word in a more neutral way, as in this recent pronouncement: “Official NOAA Climate Prediction Center estimates peg the odds of El Niño’s return at 50 percent, but many climate scientists think that is a lowball estimate.” No accusation of hanky-panky there. But the term does retain a strong association with deliberate deception on the one hand, and with financial transactions on the other. It can be a verb or even a noun (as in, “If she offers you a hundred dollars, don’t take it. That’s a lowball.”), yet it is most often encountered in an adjective mood, modifying things like offers, bids, budget projections, or sales prices. Sometimes it is designed to cheat, sometimes merely to lower expectations; either way, it partakes of deliberately misleading the audience. Even in a sentence like ” . . . the loss of physical bookstores, buckling under the weight of Amazon’s lowball prices” (International Business Times News, December 20, 2013), the feeling remains that Amazon’s prices are somehow illegitimate or unfair, even if they are not deceptive in the usual sense.

I’m not sure why “lowball” came to mean what it means. I learned it first as a baseball term, an adjective applied to pitchers and hitters alike. In that sense, it doesn’t imply deception; there are intentionally deceptive pitches, like the changeup or the spitball, but a low fastball doesn’t have to fool the batter in order to work. A “lowball glass” is a kind of liquor vessel, a short, round, wide glass used for a single spirit on the rocks or mixed with water. The drinks themselves are sometimes referred to as “lowballs.” And it’s a type of poker, a game in which the worst hand wins. That at least contains an element of misdirection that might qualify it as an ancestor, but there’s no obvious connection. I would guess that the old word “lowdown” (meaning “reprehensible”) had an influence, possibly a decisive one; sometimes “lowball” is used as a straight synonym for “lowdown,” or at least it was.

Lighter records the first use of “lowball” — as a verb — in 1957; it appeared in the New York Times on June 16: “‘low balling’: In effect this is quoting a low price initially and then reneging” or piling on extra costs after the contract is signed. The reporter attributed the then two-word verb to auto dealers. The first citation as an adjective dates from 1970, the latest part of speech to join the bandwagon. Lighter adduces a distinct definition: “operating at a low profit margin,” applied to organizations rather than activities. That sense appears to have disappeared since the seventies.

To some degree, “lowball” has lost its negative connotation, or at least it has become possible to use it without one. Of the expressions I’ve covered, not many have gone in that direction. “Factoid” is the only example I can think of, and it’s not a very good analogy. “Thanks for sharing” is no longer automatically sarcastic, but that’s another imprecise resemblance. Terms like “massage the numbers” and “game the system” have gone the other way, losing the possibility of a positive connotation over the last few decades.

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