Q&A: Why is it a ‘ballpark figure’?

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, it's in the ballpark…

Q: Hi AWC, I’ve been asked to give a ballpark quote to someone. Any tips?

A: Well, it’s just another way of saying a rough estimate – to give them an idea. So, as long as you make it clear that any final quote would likely be different, you should be fine.

Q: No, you misunderstand. Someone wants me to build them a ballpark. He keeps muttering something about “build it and he will come”…

A: Oh, um, we’re not sure how much that would cost. Sorry.

Q: Okay, fair enough. Let’s talk about your thing instead then.

A: The idiom of “ballpark figure”?

Q: Yes, that.

A: Okay, well, it’s as American as it sounds – named after the baseball stadium, which was first called a ballpark in the 1890s. A “ballpark figure/estimate” means an off-the-cuff guess. An approximation.

Q: But why a ballpark? Why not a golf course or a croquet lawn?

A: Probably because the earliest reference is very baseball-specific.

Q: How so?

A: In the 1940s, many baseball terms were coined. “Off the mark” and “out in left field” being a few examples.

Q: Ah, like how “left field thinking” these days is a bit offbeat and wacky, right?

A: That’s right. So a 1945 novel by Kenneth Patchen had two characters talking about a topic, and one says, “you’re out in left field” (holding a view that wasn’t mainstream) and the other character replied, “and you’re not even in the ballpark”.

Q: So, what does that mean?

A: Well it was a clever way for the author to take an existing phrase and sit it back in a baseball context to create an even wilder assertion. They weren’t just “left field” – in fact they weren’t even in the ballpark anymore.

Q: So did it evolve from there?

A: Yes – it kind of got retrofitted back INSIDE the ballpark. By 1950, we see a scientific text discussing certain results as being “in the ballpark” of what they were expecting.

Q: Like aiming for a target and getting “close enough”?

A: Exactly. In fact, throughout the 1950s, American atomic scientists used the phrase “in the ballpark” while testing missiles. They saw the size of a ballpark (approximately 100 metres square) as being a sufficient landing “range” to equate to being close to a target.

Q: Gives new meaning to missile strike.. Strike 1…

A: True. Some reports even say that in the Pacific they actually had a physical satellite landing area known as “the Ballpark”, so the phrase kind of comes full circle.

Q: Like rounding all the bases for a home run?

A: Haha, yeah sure. Some also suggest it was a baseball commentator’s estimation of the crowd size at a game that coined the term “ballpark figure”. But whatever the case, by the 1960s we were using it for all kinds of generic approximations.

Q: So, it’s a fairly recent addition really.

A: Yes, only about 50 years or so have we been giving people ballpark figures that typically have nothing to do with sport.

Q: Unless you’re building an actual ballpark for someone…

A: Ah yes, that. So was this person who approached you named Kevin and has a big cornfield?

Q: Oh, so you know him then?…

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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