Language – Going Through a Phrase

By Mordechai Schiller

English on The Ball

With equal parts delight and something between surprise and shock, my wife responded to my remembering to do something:

“Wow! You’re really on the ball!”

(As a recovered advertising copywriter, I’m dangerously close to exceeding my quota of exclamation points; and I’m only up to my second sentence. I sometimes resort to Spanish upside-down exclamation points¡)

If you’re under a certain age (I’m not certain what age, I stopped counting long ago), you can’t appreciate how remarkable the feat was of my actually remembering to do it. I say “it” because I can’t remember now what it was that I did.

What I do remember is that it got me thinking about that phrase “on the ball.” The words triggered a stream of images, culminating in a circus act with an elephant balancing itself on a ball. Just what I need. I have enough trouble making my way along Brooklyn’s broken sidewalks. Forget standing on a ball.

But why a ball?

It turns out that being on the ball has nothing to do with an acrobatic feat of performing a spherical unicycle act.

(Unicycle? Who mentioned unicycles? Don’t ask me how my flight of free association got me from elephants standing on balls to unicycles. Maybe it was the circus clowns.)

I was already on a roll. That led me to an academic study on (deep breath) “Visualizing the motion of a unicycle on a sphere.” If the title doesn’t get you, try the abstract: “The kinematics, dynamics, and control of a unicycle (with yaw and roll inputs) moving without slip on a planar surface has been studied extensively in the geometric mechanics and nonholonomic literature. This paper considers the kinematic extension to the case of a unicycle moving on a nonplanar surface. …”

That’s about as abstract as it gets.

But all seriousness aside, what does “on the ball” mean?

There’s a quaint origin story that begins with an actual ball. The Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, is where time begins. OK, not really, but it’s the point from which solar time is measured: Greenwich Mean Time (now called Coordinated Universal Time — UTC). New York is on Eastern Daylight time, UTC minus four hours.

Stay with me now …

The Observatory is home to the Greenwich time ball. Since 1833, the ball has signaled the time to passing ships. The Phrase Finder website says, “It was, and still is, raised just before 1 p.m. each day and falls as 1 p.m. strikes on the Observatory’s clock. Captains needed to have their ships’ chronometers set accurately in order to navigate correctly, hence they needed to be ‘on the ball.’”

Great story. But it’s not true.

Turns out the expression “on the ball” comes from baseball.

I’m not a ballplayer or fan, but to know American English, you have to know the language of baseball. As the eminent historian Jacques Barzun wrote, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

So I followed William Safire’s guidance. “Where would pols, pundits and morose mucky-mucks be without the language of baseball? Here’s the pitch: Despite distractions, you have to keep your eye on the ball.”

Safire led me to the baseball lexicographer Paul Dickson’s Baseball Dictionary:

“‘Keep your eye on the ball’ — An instruction to be alert on the baseball field. It can be a reminder given to a batter to watch the pitch carefully as it is delivered: ‘A batter should watch the ball all the way, from the start of the pitcher’s wind-up to the release of the ball, and until the bat meets the ball, or until the ball crosses the plate.’”

A related expression is “to have something on the ball,” or “stuff on the ball.” It refers to a “pitcher’s assortment or repertoire of pitches collectively, together with his ability to deliver and control them in the proper sequence at the right velocity to the desired area of the strike zone; the ingredients of good pitching.”

“Stuff” could also refer to techniques used by a pitcher to control the trajectory of the ball. It could mean putting “spin” or “English” on the ball (originally from billiards), making it twist, suddenly change direction, and come over the plate for a strike.

Some pitchers have put actual physical stuff on the ball, including illegal substances. No, not those kind of illegal substances. I mean like spitballs — “A ball moistened on one side with saliva or sweat before pitching, so that it acquires a swerve. (Illegal in the official game.)” — Oxford English Dictionary.

(Not to be confused with the spitballs illegal in school — where we would chew up pieces of paper and, using pea shooters, shoot them across the room. They were less lethal than blowguns with poison darts. But getting caught by the teacher meant confiscation … and the elementary school equivalent of the umpire sending the player to the showers.)

Perhaps most relevant is this definition from Dickson:

“On the ball — Said of a pitcher who is working effectively, using speed, location, and movement. A good pitcher with the ability to deceive batters is said to have a lot “on the ball.” … Extended Use … At one’s best; competent. … Bright and alert; showing energy.”

Unlike coins, balls don’t have a flip side. But even the moon has a dark side. The negative form of the expression is, “‘He’s got nothing on the ball — nothing at all’ for someone who is dull.”

Now I just better remember the other things I was supposed to do. If not, I might drop the ball.n

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to

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