06/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Baseball Has a Language All Its Own

If you're not familiar with the following terms: "blue darter" , "dead mackerel," "cement mixer,'' "whangdoodle," or the "tools of ignorance'' and you consider yourself a baseball fan -- no better time than the present (especially with Opening Day fast approaching) to dip into the Dickson Baseball Dictionary (W.W. Norton & Company), now in its 3rd edition with twice as many entries since the last edition.

The dictionary is now a robust 974 pages, which includes 10,000 entries and over 18,000 definitions detailing current, archaic, and colloquial terms associated with the great American pastime stretching back to the 19th century.

Far from being a coffee table book clogging up space, the Baseball Dictionary is as indispensable as the American Heritage Dictionary, William Safire's Political Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary.

It's particularly valuable for discovering when a particular expression gained currency. It wasn't that long ago, for example, when I wondered who first used the term "walk-off home-run." I took a peek into Dickson's dictionary, and sure enough, I learned Dennis Eckersley coined the term on July 30, 1988.

Reached at his Maryland home, Paul Dickson, the author of the dictionary, tells me over 400 baseball fans, scholars, researchers, and other information junkies (mostly volunteers) have helped him immensely in tracking down the historic origins of these phrases.

The Yonkers, N.Y. native, and author of nearly 50 books, including Baseball's Greatest Quotations, the Hidden Language of Baseball, and the Joy of Keeping Score, said it was fairly easy getting people to help with his project.

Similar to the fictional character Tom Sawyer convincing friends to whitewash the fence for him after they discover how much fun he was having, Dickson tells me chuckling, others find it challenging and are more than willing to help dig up the birth of a baseball expression.

And speaking of Tom Sawyer being forced to "whitewash" the fence by his Aunt Polly as punishment for playing hooky from school, the term "whitewash" is listed in Dickson Baseball Dictionary; the most popular usage is to prevent another team from scoring, a phrase first coined by Henry Chadwick in his 1868 classic, The Game of Baseball (p. 46).

What convinced Dickson to assemble a dictionary of baseball terms was sparked several years ago when he was attending a baseball game with his children. Dickson found himself under siege from his inquisitive children about how different parts of the field first got their name, like the dugout, clubhouse, etc. Unable to supply his curious children with an authoritative answer, Dickson soon landed at the public library, thinking there surely must be a book that chronicles the origins of baseball terms, only to discover no such book existed.

Like a bolt of lightening, an idea for a book was launched.

Dickson started slowly, first going through the alphabet thinking of baseball terms that needed to be defined. Before too long, he started recruiting experts in different fields of the game, many of whom included former umpires, baseball beat writers, top statistical experts, writers familiar with Spanish terms, and others who made it their vocation reading sport pages, especially 19th century sports pages.

It wasn't long after that before Dickson had enough terms to put together a dictionary made up exclusively of baseball terms. The first baseball dictionary was published in 1989. And the list keeps growing. Dickson tells me he just received a letter for someone wondering why "sponge finger" (the foam decorative hand glove worn at stadiums) wasn't in the dictionary.

The new edition, among other novelties, keeps up with the changing times of the game by adding entries for: "greenie," "steroids," "inter-league play," "contraction," "sabermetrics" (analyzing the game through statistics), and "mojo." Dickson says, among other new terms, he is working on a name for the new Yankee Stadium. "The House that Juice Built" is being kicked around as one possibility.

Most beneficial (especially to researchers) about Dickson Baseball Dictionary are that most citations list the date when the term was first used, including the publication believed to have used it first. The expression "Baltimore chop," for example, meaning a ball hit into the ground in front of home plate, only to bounce high in the air allowing the hitter to reach base, was first used on June 16th, 1906 by the Boston Daily, when they wrote, "[Joe] Kelly netted a high bouncing bingle in old-fashioned Baltimore chop."

Like any other mountainous historic undertaking, though, the roots of a term aren't always exact. Dickson said he occasionally hears from baseball fans in a "gotcha!" moment to inform him they came across a term three months prior to the citation listed in his dictionary.

In addition to its original use, the Baseball Dictionary chronicles how a word or expression gradually grew in popularity over time. To put on a "rally cap" (a baseball cap put on backwards or inside out), a term which gained prominence with the New York Mets, Houston Astros, and Boston Red Sox during the 1986 season, was actually a tradition that began with the University of Texas in the late 1970s.

In this age of political correctness -- with polished sentence structure, a lack of jargon, and overused slang the order of the day -- it is comforting to note, as Dickson does in the forward of the book, that baseball for the most part has maintained a language all its own, or as one sportswriter labeled it: "the incorrect use of correct words."

Baseball fans relish tales of the many Yogism's ("I didn't really say everything I said," "It ain't over until its over") and Deanisms ("Players returned to their respectable bases," "The doctors X-rayed my head and found nothing"), as well as invoking their colloquial language during a course of a game: free pass, curtain caller, chin music, dinger, gapper, heater, toeing the rubber, small ball, sweet part of the bat, the high cheese, a looker, and seeing-eye single. These phrases might not be familiar to the casual outsider, but to fans of the game, these are words that have a natural ring to the ear.

Dickson points out that when Call Ripken Jr was honored as one of the 100 greatest players of the 20th Century at the 1999 All-Star Game with the likes of Ted Williams and Carlton Fisk, the shortstop thought how cool it was that the language of baseball transcends different eras. "We talked baseball," Ripken told The Boston Herald "with the same dimensions and strike zones."

Thanks to Dickson, and his marvelous battalion of contributors, baseball's terms, its historic roots and forgotten slang are scrupulously researched and accurately recorded with the aim of keeping alive its rich storied tradition, much like two other great American traditions: Rock n' Roll music and the U.S. Constitution.

-Bill Lucey


A selection of baseball terms from The Dickson Baseball Dictionary:

Balance the Budget: When a team ties the score.
Vin Scully is thought to have been the first to use this phrase during the 1989 All-Star game.

Bug Bruiser: A term used when a batter scorches a ball; first used by the Chicago Inter-Ocean on July 7, 1874.

Can of Corn: Easily caught ball, especially when a fielder has plenty of time to settle under a ball before it lands in his glove.
The term was coined by Burt Standish in Frank Merriwells Schooldays, published in 1896; and is derived from the old grocery store setting, when a grocer used a long stick to nudge an item off a shelf that couldn't be reached with bare hands.

Carve nicks in the weather: Swinging at a pitch without making contact.
This phrase first appeared in the American Magazine on June, 1912.

Doozy Marooney: Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster Rosey Rowswell often used this phrase when a ball was belted for extra bases. ``The old dooozy marooney.

Drive the Yellow Bus: An outstanding performance turned in by a pitcher who took the hitters to school.

Fandango: A strikeout.

Go for a Bagel: When a batter goes hitless at the plate.
The Boston Globe first used this term on August 11, 1997.

Poisoned Bat: A dangerous hitter steps to the plate.

Pound the Air: To take a hard cut at a ball without making contact, a term that first appeared in Baseball Magazine on October, 1908

Pretzel Bender: The N.Y. Evening Journal first used this term on April 18, 1908 to describe a curveball.

Stick a Fork in Him: When a pitcher is about to be pulled by the manager.
This term, first used in Baseball Digest in May 1959, gets its name from the culinary practice of sticking a fork in a turkey to determine if it's done or not.

Whiz Chuck: When a pitcher delivers a hard thrown ball with velocity; first appeared in the N.Y. Evening Journal on August 21, 1908.