Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

Two Thursdays ago, at our Padres’ last home game of the 2014-2015 season (the good guys beat the Brewers 3-1), I had the honor of sitting in the broadcast booth between legendary sports announcer Dick Enberg and color commentator Mark Grant. During our spirited conversation, we talked about baseball terms with intriguing origins. Here’s the lineup, arranged alphabetically:

  • bleachers. Originally the farthest away, cheapest, backless and completely exposed seats. The sun bleaches the fans sitting there; hence, bleachers. Because the literal meaning of bleachers has been, for the most part, forgotten, we now have indoor bleachers, and nobody scratches a head about the contradiction.
  • blooper. A weakly hit fly ball that lands just beyond the infield (also a Texas leaguer). The name comes onomatopoetically from the sound made when the bat indirectly strikes the ball. Because the stumbling defensive ball players are made to look a little silly as the ball drops in for “a bloop single,” the word has been extended to hilarious verbal fluffs and flubs, such as “Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope.”
  • bullpen. Rather than extra pitchers sitting around in the dugout shooting the bull, managers would place them in an enclosure away from the dugout, where they are penned in like bulls. The metaphor is bolstered by the fact that the old ballparks featured advertisements for the Bull Durham Tobacco Company, and these billboards were usually located near the spot where relief pitchers warmed up.
  • bush league. The lower levels of the minor leagues where games are often played on uncleared land where bushes grow.
  • can of corn. Grocers of bygone days used a long pole or mechanical grabber (invented by Benjamin Franklin, by the way) to tip a can on a high shelf or at the top of a pile. The can would tumble into the grocer’s waiting hands or open apron, just as a lazy fly ball settles easily into a fielder’s glove.
  • catbird seat. Popularized by legendary Brooklyn Dodgers announcer Red Barber, “sitting in the catbird seat” has come to mean “a position of advantage,” such as a batter with a 3-0 count. Some ornithologists claim that the catbird does not sit high up in the branches of a tree, where it would get the best view, but rather lurks half-hidden in the shrubbery. Other birders assert that the catbird does occupy a lofty perch, but so do other birds. Why should the catbird be singled out? I don’t know because I’m a word botcher; not a bird watcher.
  • rhubarb. Also popularized by Red Barber. A ruckus, a donnybrook, a fight between players or between players and fans or between manager and umpire. Possibly from the way that early radio directors would simulate a crowd scene by having the actors stand together and murmur, “Rhubarb-rhubarb-rhubarb” over and over. Another of many explanations is that a rhubarb on the baseball field suggests, in the words of sportswriter Garry Schumacher, “an untidy mess, a disheveled tangle of loose ends like the fibers of stewed rhubarb.”
  • southpaw. You may well know that a southpaw is a slang term for a left-handed person, but do you know why? The answer can be found in our great American pastime. Most early baseball diamonds were laid out with the pitcher’s mound to the east of home plate. With the westward orientation of home plate the batter wouldn’t have to battle the afternoon sun in his eyes. As a result, as a right-handed pitcher wound up, he faced north — and a left-handed pitcher south. South + paw (“hand”) = southpaw.