* Lest we forget: William Safire

Ron KaplanContributor ISeptember 30, 2009

The wordsmith passed away at the age of 79 on Sept. 27.

I’ve always had a love for words and language, how everything comes together. Safire was a hero when it came to bringing it all together without being too academic about it.

From the “On Language” column — Safire’s outlet for many years — in this Sunday’s Times by Jack Rosenthal, president of The New York Times Company Foundation.


When the baseball season began in April, William Safire reviewed baseball terms that have become part of the language, like ballpark figures, meaning rough estimates, or a political candidate’s hoping to knock the ball out of the park. Now the imminent end of the regular season occasions further reflection.

Some terms, literally within the ballpark, have been around so long that their sources are shrouded in legend. My favorite is out of left field, which has come to describe an idea that sounds irrelevant, even crazy. Paul Dickson’s Baseball Dictionary cites several explanations, notably that when the Chicago Cubs moved to Wrigley Field, the site of their old park was developed by the University of Illinois, which built a mental hospital in — where else? — left field.

There is also a semantic facet of baseball that might be called a whole ’nother ballgame: baseball terms have also become part of other languages. The Japanese love besuboru, reflecting the phonetic phenomenon of lallation, reversing “r” and “l.” In Spanish, beisbol has its own hybrid language.

My son, John, who follows baseball closely, recalls that when a pitcher from Cuba was asked the Spanish word for “fastball,” he answered “el fastball.” On the other hand, the Spanish word for “outfielder” is guardabosque. “It also means park ranger,” John writes. “I like the notion of three park rangers guarding the outfield from pesky singles, doubles and forest fires.” Or the occasional mental patient.

Safire on baseball