Backstop

What do these expressions have in common?

backstop
left field
curve ball
wheelhouse
step up to the plate

They’re all expressions used in baseball, but they also all have another, figurative meaning. Backstop is perhaps the word we’ve heard most in the UK in recent weeks. In the context of the UK’s border with Ireland, I think many of us would struggle to explain exactly what it means. Fortunately the third definition of the word in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary helps us to understand what it represents:

backstop

Now, most of us would not claim to be experts on the legal details of Brexit, but nor, I suspect, would all that many people on the Eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean claim detailed knowledge of baseball. Yet we seem to have no problem adopting figurative expressions without knowing their original literal meaning. All of these examples come from British English sources:

Here is a movie straight out of left field.

That seemed so far out of left field that no one saw it coming. Robot dinosaurs.

The defence barrister told the judge that the evidence from the detective sergeant had “come out of left field this morning”.

And similarly, although we Brits might be used to facing a googly on the cricket pitch, and metaphorically in life in general, it seems we are also happy to talk about a curve or a curve ball without really knowing what that would mean in baseball.

curve ball

We now find plenty of evidence on the British English corpus of curve ball being used in this metaphorical sense:

Sometimes life throws you a massive curve ball.

… political and economic risks that could throw markets a curve ball

but so far we haven’t really started using wheelhouse in a figurative sense. We have a wheelhouse on a boat, but we’re less aware of the baseball meaning:

wheelhouse

and it is from this that the transferred meaning must come:

wheelhouse-a

We don’t find this use in the British English corpus unless American speakers are being quoted:

Biden told a crowd in Missoula … “The issues that we face as a country today are the issues that have been in my wheelhouse, that I’ve worked on my whole life …”

Those are kind of in my wheelhouse, those types of golf courses

“Please stay in your wheelhouse – you can have an opinion but let’s acknowledge that you have no legal expertise”

shutterstock_144635219Maybe this will eventually also filter into British English, because as we’ve seen, we aren’t worried about the original meaning if the figurative sense turns out to be useful. In British English we are happy to step up to the plate, even though we might not be sure where that is on the baseball pitch.

In fact, this has always happened – figurative meanings become so common that they may overtake and eventually completely eclipse the literal sense. We frequently talk about the mainspring of something without perhaps realizing that this originally referred to a part of a watch. The idea of ‘the most important part of something’ is now listed as the first sense of the word, with the watch meaning relegated to second. For a similar word, linchpin, the literal meaning – the pin that keeps a wheel in position – no longer appears in the OALD at all. Nor does the original meaning of broadside, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, which covers historical meanings, as ‘the whole array or the simultaneous discharge of the artillery on one side of a ship of war’. Naval historians might still be familiar with that use, but now we only think of a broadside as ‘an aggressive attack in words, whether written or spoken’.

We can see this happening in our own times. How long will it be before the first meaning of carbon copy moves to second place, and maybe disappears completely?

carbon copy

Interestingly, the expression lives on in the digital age – but how many younger speakers (who might never have seen a piece of carbon paper) realize when they say ‘cc me in on the email’ what that first ‘c’ stands for? Strangely enough, words can have a longer life than the things they represent!


Margaret Deuter is a managing editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. She taught English in Germany and the United States before becoming a lexicographer in 1991 to work on monolingual and bilingual learners’ dictionaries.

3 thoughts on “Backstop

  1. What an awesome article and what a great blog that I just found! I love that you made a post about baseball terminology. I’m currently studying to become an English teacher in Israel and I know just how much this fact is lost on people. Including my wife (she’s fluent in English, but from Ukraine). Heck, most Americans do not appreciate the origin of words and stop to think about just how much sport terminology has found its way into daily speech.I’m going to print out this post and bring it with me for my students to read during my next teaching practice! Thanks so much!

    Like

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