Word Salad – December 2022

Play Ball!

The union of word nerds and sports fanatics is not quite as unlikely as one might think. Listen up. For baseball fans, summer isn’t officially over until the best teams of the National and American leagues clash in the World Series. The Fall Classic was won this year—most impressively—by the Houston Astros. Were there any lingering doubts that the Astros could win without cheating, they can now be laid to rest. Their performance this year was nothing short of mesmerizing, as are most things when the true experts are doing whatever it is they do.

It is the feats, or the occasional missteps, of these adepts that have given rise to some terms that, while  grounded in sports, easily transcend athletics. So now that the traditional warm-weather sports are behind us for a while and our attention is turned to the wintertime favorites, football and basketball, let’s explore some sports idioms we are sure to hear as the players compete. In no particular order, they are:

Down to the wire. Sport of origin: horse racing. When the horses running the race are so close, there’s no clear winner until the very last minute, when one’s nose crosses the finish line first. We use this term when time is of the essence and a final push is required. This also gives us the term photo finish.

Get the ball rolling. Sport of origin: any sport with a ball. Obviously, no game that has a ball as part of its equipment can begin until the ball is in play. So when we are past the talking stage of a project, to move on to the actual doing stage one might say, “Okay, guys, let’s get the ball rolling.”

Drop the ball. Sport of origin: any sport involving a ball. When one has possession of the ball in a sport, dropping that ball is a sin of agonizing proportions. Off the playing field, we use this phrase to denote a missed opportunity. Something is expected of you but you forgot and the deadline has passed. Sending your sweetheart flowers on February 15 is pretty much dropping the ball.

Make the cut. Sport of origin: most team sports. To make the cut means to be selected, you’ve met certain criteria to advance to the next stage. It’s hard to believe that golf icon Tiger Woods has actually missed the cut over 20 times since his pro debut in 1996. In the business world, you might hear, “Congratulations on making the cut. You are now eligible for the final round of Jeopardy!”

The ball is in your court. Sport of origin: tennis. When the ball has crossed the net into your section of the court, it is your responsibility to return it to your opponent’s court. In non-tennis terms, it means it’s your decision or responsibility to do something now.

He aced it. Sport of origin: tennis. When one hits an unreturnable serve in tennis, he is said to have aced it. In an everyday sense, it means one made a successful pitch or scored perfectly on a test.

Hit it out of the park. Sport of origin: baseball. The batter hit a home run. Same could be said if a confident applicant were asked how s/he thinks an interview or audition went.

Call the shots. Sport of origin: snooker/billiards. The player describes—or calls—what will happen before making the shot. Used commonly to mean being in charge; someone who gives orders.

Take sides. Sport of origin: any team sports. This means to join a side or group when in an argument against the other group.

Hit below the belt. Sport of origin: boxing. Boxing rules require no punches to an opponent’s body below the navel. To do so would not only be unsportsmanlike, but would likely incur a penalty. Outside the boxing ring, when someone does something that is perceived as self-serving with a disregard of decency, s/he is accused of hitting below the belt.

Hit your target. Sport of origin: archery. This means to achieve what is expected of you. It has become a motivational term commonly used in the business world: “If you work hard, you can hit your target and earn that bonus.”

Blindsided. Sport of origin: any sport, but primarily football. To not see something coming.  A player is blindsided when s/he is tackled, hit, or attacked by an opponent on the blind side, out of the player’s field of vision. Off the gridiron, it means to be attacked critically or taken by surprise where one is vulnerable, uninformed, or unprepared.

Got it over the net. Sport of origin: tennis. In tennis, when makes a not-so-great shot but does manage to hit the ball to the opponent’s side of the net, he can halfheartedly congratulate him/herself for keeping the ball in play. It is used in everyday terms as just barely getting by but getting by nonetheless. A Spanish teacher may advise new students not to dwell on accuracy, but rather to use what little Spanish they do have. If they got their meaning across, they should be proud that they “at least got it over the net.”

Throw a curveball. Sport of origin: baseball. A curveball is a type of pitch thrown with a characteristic grip and hand movement that imparts forward spin to the ball, causing it to dive as it approaches the plate. Nolan Ryan, arguably one of the best pitchers of all time, mastered it. And when combined with his fastball, embarrassed many a batter and brought them to their knees . . . literally. In everyday parlance, one throws a curveball when s/he seeks to confuse, to introduce something totally unexpected.

Thus, this column’s improbable topic might well be perceived as a bit of a curveball.

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Sally Asante
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