Play Ball!


The other day I was talking with someone about the funny idioms of American English, which can make it so hard for non-native speakers to understand what we're saying. Sometimes it's difficult to know which idioms are truly American and which were inherited from our English ancestors, but it's probably safe to say that our many baseball idioms originated in the New World. So as a public service I've decided to write about American idioms and phrases, starting with some baseball-related idioms.

There are so many baseball idioms (I count at least 40 of them) that it's hard to know where to start. However, in general, when you don't know where to start, it's best to start at the beginning. :-) So the first phrase we'll investigate is this:

Play ball!

Somewhere in America that phrase is probably being uttered in an official capacity right now, because they are the words that a baseball umpire shouts in order to start a game. When used on the baseball field, the words mean "The game begins now!" or "Start playing!" (you'll notice that the phrase is a command, not a request). But they are also used in normal speech in an extended sense, meaning something like "Let's get going" (or, in slang, "Let's get this show on the road" -- is that a baseball phrase, too?). However, "playing ball" is not always a competitive activity -- for example, two people can simply toss a ball back and forth. As a result, "to play ball" can mean "to cooperate, to work together". Thus one might hear a business person say something like "we tried to negotiate with that supplier, but they just wouldn't play ball". A similar phrase is "now we're playing ball" -- meaning "now things are moving, now we're making progress" (another idiom that means the same thing is "now we're cooking with gas", which comes from the days when gas stoves were a new technology, supplanting old wood-fired stoves).

See, ain't American English fun?

Peter Saint-Andre > Journal