Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Baseball Business

A while ago, I wrote a post about how irritating the language of business can be (read it here). I cringe when I hear people using choice buzzwords to try to impress in the world of business, particularly at my own workplace. I feel like a volcano waiting to erupt and have to exercise monumental control not to yell:

“Speak English to me.”

Equally irritating is the use of idioms from the world of American sport in British business, particularly from baseball. I understand that in America two businessmen, who almost certainly watch baseball all the time, would use choice phrases from that sport because they would both understand the meaning perfectly.

In Britain, however, we do not watch baseball and the vast majority of businessmen have absolutely no idea what the terminology means.

I remember the first time I watched a baseball game. I was in Trinidad and there was a curfew, so I had little choice but to watch TV. There was nothing on at all, apart from a baseball game on an American sports channel. So I watched the entire game.

I have to admit that I actually enjoyed it and, more surprisingly, I understood it. I wouldn’t say that I was an expert by any means, but I found it entertaining enough to watch it on a couple of subsequent trips to the US. As I watched, I was pleasantly surprised to hear some of the idioms. As a teenager, I loved the song “Paradise By Dashboard Light” by Meat Loaf from the album “Bat Out Of Hell” but I thought that radio announcer section of that song was just gibberish and couldn’t fathom the meaning in the context of the song. Watching that first baseball game in Trinidad was an epiphany; I knew exactly what was happening in the song because I understood what was meant by:

Bottom of the ninth

Batter steps up to the plate

Here’s the play at the plate

Bunted down the third base line

I listened to the song again and pictured in my head what was going on in the car and at the baseball game – and it all made sense.

Unfortunately I am in a minority because, although baseball is played in Britain, it is an amateur sport with a very small audience. The likelihood that it is watched regularly by British businessmen is slim at best.

So why do people use baseball idioms in the UK?

I want to know why they simply cannot speak to me in terms that I can relate to. Here are the most irritating, with my interpretation of what they mean:

Will you play ball?
Will you go along with my insane plan?

They threw a curveball.
They came up with something totally unexpected (as customers sometimes do).

That job you were assigned. Have you completed a home run?
That job you were supposed to do. Was it a complete success?

Can you field these questions?
Somebody is going to ask a bunch of difficult questions that I can’t answer, so will you make yourself look like a fool instead of me by answering them?

They are going to strike out on the deal.
They are not going to sign the contract (probably because it is full of baseball idioms that they don’t understand).

I want you to play hardball.
I want you to be tough with them (because I'm trying to give the impression that I'm nice).

Can you give me a ballpark figure?
Can you guess for me? I am incapable of doing so and I want somebody to blame when your estimates are way out.

Three strikes and you’re out.
If you make three mistakes you are sacked. So please don’t punch me again for using baseball idioms.

I want you to cover all bases.
I want you to prepare for all possible outcomes, even the most ridiculous unplanned ones.

Can you touch base with Bill?
Can you make sure that Bill has all of the information even the stuff you and I haven’t thought of yet?

Dave, step up to the plate.
Dave, can you take responsibility (and ergo the blame) for this?

It’s a whole new ball game.
Everything’s changed, probably because I've changed my mind.

I’ve had enough of these idioms and I am going to fight back. I propose that we start using football phrases. How about these for starters?
"Shall we kick off?" to replace "Will you play ball?"

"They bent it like Beckham." to replace "They threw a curveball."

"Did you score the goal?" to replace "Have you completed a home run?"

"Can you tackle these question?" to replace "Can you field these questions?"

"Can you guess the score?" to replace "Can you give me a ballpark figure?"

"Two bookings and you are sent off" to replace "Three strikes and you’re out."

"I want you to play it safe." to replace "I want you to cover all bases."

I don’t think that it would be difficult really as there are some football idioms already in use:

"Score an own goal" - to give yourself a problem.

"Kick it around" - to talk about an idea with co-workers.

"Let the side down" – to cause trouble and annoy co-workers.

"Move the goalposts" – to make an unexpected change at the last minute.

We could even extend this to cricket:

"Take a swing" - Have a go (although this could also be a baseball phrase).

"We’re batting on a sticky wicket" – We have an awkward situation.

"This just isn’t cricket" – the situation is unfair.

"You’ve had a good innings" – you've had a positive experience and the outcome was excellent - but you are still sacked.

Actually, to be honest, I don’t really like the English idioms above either. I am going to start a campaign to ban their use in British business completely. When I take over the world, I will make sure that use of sports phrases in business is severely dealt with. The punishment for using a phrase from a sport that you know about will be severe but woe betide the person who uses an idiom from a sport he knows nothing about.

It will be one strike and out.


earthtoholly said...

Funny post, PM!

I can imagine how annoying this would be but thank goodness you could make sense of them. We have a friend who uses business idioms during casual, non-business talk. That's annoying (and funny) also.

BTW, the Meatloaf song is one of W's favorites---he always sings it when he hears it, which reminds me, Meatloaf was on House (yes, we love him here!) the other night. Oops, am rambling and am now way off in left field... Sorry, couldn't resist that one! :o):o)

Martin in Bulgaria said...

Some classics you have quoted and explaned there. some just seem to fit bill so nicely though although tend to be overused.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Holly,

Yes - I like that song too. It was quite entertaining when I saw him perform live.

I hear these business phrases all the time and I cringe inwardly. One day I will say something I swear ...

Mrs PM watches House occasionally and enjoys it. I WILL post about Hugh Laurie one day ...



Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Martin,

I wouldn't mind but one time I did ask a guy what he meant by "ball park figure" and he said - "just give me an estimate" before walking off.

Why didn't he just say that in the first place?