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Where do common sports idioms like “out of left field” come from?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2018

Victor Mather wrote about the origin of sports idioms like “wild-goose chase”, “hands down”, and “sticky wicket” for the NY Times. Some of these I didn’t even know were sports terms. “Back to square one” is an interesting entry:

As with many terms, there is a colorful explanation of the origin and a more prosaic and realistic one, though both originate with competition.

First the colorful one: When soccer was first broadcast on the radio in the 1920s in Britain, there was concern that fans would not be able to visualize the field well. So the field was divided into numbered squares, with charts published in newspapers. That way the announcer could say, “The ball is passed into Square 4, then dribbled into Square 6,” and fans used to watching games in person would understand what was going on. Square 1 was the area with the goalie, so a pass back to Square 1 would be a restarting of an offensive move.

The Oxford English Dictionary deflates that theory though, pointing out that the term’s use really began in the 1950s, some decades after the soccer broadcasting scheme stopped. It suggests the term actually comes from board games like chutes and ladders, in which players can find themselves sent back to the start.

That soccer explanation is more compelling, even if untrue. It’s fun to hear how practitioners of early media tried to represent sports to people who couldn’t view the game. For a time, baseball games were broadcast to viewers using various machines and even actors who “played” the game as reports came in via telegraph.

“A novel feature of the report was the actual running of the bases by uniformed boys, who obeyed the telegraph instrument in their moves around the diamond. Great interest prevailed and all enjoyed the report,” read the Atlanta Constitution on April 17, 1886. (And as if that wasn’t enough to entice you, the paper also noted that “A great many ladies were present.”) Although this live-action reenactment attempted at the opera house in Atlanta may have been the closest approximation of a real baseball game, it does not seem to have ever spread beyond Georgia.