“Ever since baseball began, it has had a language of its own,”The Providence Journal declared in a stirring defense of the game's slang in 1910. “[It] is brief and graphic. It tells the story tersely and to the point. There is a picturesqueness in the line of goods handled by the baseball writer that you don't stack up against anywhere else in the paper.” Taking up the same cause five years later, The New York Times proclaimed that, “the slang of the sporting page is America’s most piquant contribution to the English language.”
Paul Dickson’s compendious Baseball Dictionary is the go-to place for most lexical queries relating to America’s favorite pastime. For just a peek at some of the most notable examples of baseball slang, have a look at the 17 examples below. They’ll really put some mustard on your sports prose.
1. Aspirin Tablet
A fastball might be called an aspirin tablet because it moves so quickly that it looks as small as a little white headache pill. It may also go by many other names that are self-explanatory, and not named below: bullet, blazer, dart, gas, heater, hummer, pumper, smoke, or steam.
2. Baltimore Chop
A hit that causes the ball to immediately bounce high enough off the ground to escape the reach of infielders while the batter safely makes it to first base is a Baltimore chop. The style of hitting was likely pioneered by the Baltimore Orioles in the 1890s. “It requires great skill in placing to work this trick successfully,” according to a contemporary report.
3. Can of Corn
If there's a high fly ball that falls lazily into a fielder's glove, that's a can of corn. Theories abound about its origin, but the most popular one holds that the act was like the grocery clerk’s practice of easily catching a can of corn in their apron after tipping it from the top shelf with a long stick.
4. Chin Music
Chin music has been used since at least 1822 to refer to idle chatter. In the 1970s, it entered the baseball lexicon as a term for a pitch in which the ball whizzes by the chin of the batter such that they can hear it sing. Much talk about this intimidating play would therefore be a lot of chin music about chin music.
A pitch the batter finds it easy to make contact with is a cookie. There’s no cute etymological tale here: it’s just the perfect name for a gimme pitch.
6. Dying Quail
“Just one more dying quail a week and you’re in Yankee Stadium,” Kevin Costner, Jim Beam in hand, explains to Tim Robbins in Bull Durham (1988). The evocative term dying quail for a fly ball that quickly descends before reaching the outfielder, resulting in a single, may have been coined in the 1940s. Today, baseball announcers and writers use the more avian-friendly blooper to describe the same type of hit.
An eephus describes a slow, high-arcing pitch that more closely resembles a slow pitch than anything from a regular game of fastball. It was invented in 1941 by Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Rip Sewell, though he didn’t name it. Its quirky moniker was supplied by outfielder Maurice Van Robays, who told a reporter it was an “eephus ball.” When asked for clarification, he replied, “Eephus ain't nothing, and that's a nothing pitch.” It might be related to efes, the Hebrew word for zero.
8. Frozen Rope
Frozen rope is used for a powerful hit that sends a ball hurtling into the outfield (or over the fence) in a straight line with a trajectory that traces barely any arc.
9. Golden Sombrero
Since the late 1980s, golden sombrero has usually referred to the (fictitious) trophy awarded to a batter who ignominiously strikes out four times in a game. It has its roots in hat trick, which originated with the sport of cricket before eventually becoming synonymous with a hockey player who scores three goals in a game.
Hat trick in baseball was originally used for a lowly three-strikeout performance for a batter, with sombrero being designated for four punchouts (sombreros are bigger than typical hats, after all) and golden sombrero for five. Nowadays, a five-strikeout game is termed a platinum sombrero, and golden sombrero has been bumped down to four.
10. High Cheese
The use of the word cheese for something great has a history dating back more than two centuries, but the word’s usage to describe a fastball is relatively recent, going back to the '80s. High cheese is designated for a fastball through the upper strike zone—it can also be alto queso.
When ESPN.com columnist John Sickels created this term—which stands for “lefty, one-out guy”—in 1998, it referred to any relief pitcher who was specially deployed to get one lefty batter out and then leave the game. Because of a 2020 rule change, LOOGYs were much diminished: All pitchers must now face at least three batters, so no more “one-out” guys.
“A weakly hit ground ball” is Merriam-Webster’s neatly succinct definition of nubber. One of its earliest appearances in print is in the Passaic Daily Herald, where its “obscure” origins are explored. “It may be a corruption of the word ‘nubbin,’ which, as any Middle Western farm boy can tell you, refers to a dwarfed ear of corn—one that is small and not properly filled out,” the author wrote. Nubbin, Merriam-Webster says, is much older: Its first recorded use is from 1692.
14. Punch-and-Judy Hitter
For a hitter who doesn’t swing for the fences, preferring instead to slap well-placed singles, you can use the term Punch-and-Judy hitter. According to Dickson, this is an embellishment of punch, describing the way these players quickly jab at the ball instead of taking a full swing. Then-minor league pitcher Sam Gibson seems to have first popularized the term in 1940 when explaining to sportswriter Harry Borba why he hated to play against the Hollywood Stars squad. “They’re just punch and judy hitters,” he explained. “I go better against a swinging ball club.” The “Punch and Judy” he's referencing dates back to the silly and violent puppet shows from 17th-century England.
15. Uncle Charlie
A curveball has colloquially been known as Uncle Charlie since at least the early 1930s. “Uncle Charlie’s got him—He can’t hit a curve,” sportswriter James W. Schlemmer explained in 1933. The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell reported that the nickname was given an update in 1976 to honor Bert Blyleven’s curveball, which American League hitters dubbed Lord Charles. But who was Uncle Charlie? Rumors claim it was cheekily named in honor of Harvard President Charles William Eliot, who was supposed to have been aghast at the pitch. "I understand that a curveball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive," he is quoted as saying. "Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard."
Eliot did cast a jaundiced eye on college sports, but that quotation didn't appear in print until 1963 (Eliot died in 1926). Richard Hershberger tracked down what appears to be the original, less pithy quotation, from 1884, which couldn't have been spoken by Eliot (though it might have been said by his cousin, another Charles). Alas, Uncle Charlie remains a small mystery.
16. Worm Burner
A pitched ball that breaks (doesn’t follow a straight path) was called a yakker by Red Sox pitcher Dennis Eckersley as early as 1979. The term may derive from yawker, the name of a bird (the Northern flicker) whose flight path is similarly deceptive. It takes talent and skill to throw a yakker. In other words: You have to have a good hose.