Q&A: Off the bat vs off the back

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're giving the bat signal…

Q: Hi AWC – can you help with the phrase, “off your own bat”?

A: Sure, it’s an idiom that means you did something based solely on your own efforts.

Q: So it’s definitely not “off your own back”?

A: Ah, no. But this comes up frequently.

Q: Why?

A: Well, the obvious reason is that the two words sound quite similar.

Q: Hmmm, I’m pretty sure Bruce Wayne was never mistaken as “Backman”…

A: True, although that whole bat symbol in the sky and costume may have had something to do with that. Anyway, let’s take a closer look.

Q: Okay, sure.

A: The phrase “off your own bat” is actually quite old – coming directly from cricket in the 1700s. For the first chunk of its life, however, it simply meant to literally score runs off your bat. By 1845 however, it started being used figuratively for other things.

Q: All this talk reminds me of my Uncle Tony who has been known to bat for both sides.

A: Okay, well good for him.

Q: Yeah, he says his club’s cricket team opponents never have enough players.

A: Right. Anyway, another explanation why people might mistakenly use “off your own back” is that they’re thinking of the term, “to give the shirt off one’s own back”.

Q: Actually, Uncle Tony often has to do that too. The other teams never bring uniforms.

A: Uh huh.

Q: Hey, while we’re talking bats, what about “right off the bat”?

A: We were just going to get to that one actually.

Q: Uncanny. You’d almost swear it was just one person writing this.

A: Ahem. Anyway, to do something “right off the bat” is for it to happen immediately. This phrase is newer, dating back to the 1880s. Americans are pretty sure it came from baseball, although cricket also has tried to claim this one.

Q: We might need to check the replay to see if it did indeed come off the cricket bat. Haha.

A: Hilarious.

Q: Although, if you hit the ball in baseball, you DO run to the right to get to first base.

A: That’s true, and the phrase is more widely used in America, so baseball probably did come up with that one like many others.

Q: Do people also say “right off the back” on that one too?

A: They do. And again, it’s likely they’re getting confused with another term. In this case, it’s “off the back” of something.

Q: Which means?

A: Typically it’s used to convey a sequence of events. So, you might say, “the team won off the back of great performance by the captain.” In a different context, one might ask, “what do you hope could happen off the back of this?”

Q: So that’s more about an event leading to something else?

A: Correct. And with all these backs, bats and offs – plus the rhyme factor – it’s likely that people simply mix it up.

Q: They probably don’t even bat an eyelid while they do it.

A: Didn’t even stop to look back.

Q: So, in summary, both sayings should be “bat” – “off your own bat” AND “right off the bat”, correct?

A: Yep. Right off the bat we knew this would be an easy one to understand…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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