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Pitch (football, soccer, etc.)

Thirty percent if it involves ships, cops or farm animals.

Dear Word Detective:  Recently, watching the 2010 FIFA World Cup (which I’m so sure you watch) I’ve heard announcers use “field” and “pitch.” “Field” I understand, but “pitch”? Isn’t that usually used in the context of a baseball pitcher? I’m very, very confused, but if you could answer this then I could be an insufferable know-it-all even more than I am now. Thanks! — Aife N.

Well, some of us really do know it all, and, trust me, it’s a burden you don’t want to bear. I just hope your I’m-oh-so-confused question isn’t a clever attempt to sidestep our standard TWD Bar Bet commission (25% of your winnings). I have agents in every tavern in the world, y’know. Yes, they’re pretending to be asleep in the corner booth, but they hear everything. Incidentally, I actually enjoy soccer (what some folks in the hinterlands call “football”), and I fully intended to watch the World Cup, but my TV developed a horrible buzzing sound, so I went for a walk instead. A very long walk.

“Pitch” is one of those unruly words that, once let out of its cage, sort of ran amuck for a few hundred years, spawning all sorts of far-flung meanings that seem to have only a tangential connection to the original word. The first step to unraveling this “pitch” puzzle is to note that there are actually two “pitches” in English, the older of which means the black, gooey, tar-like substance derived from pine trees. That is not the “pitch” we’re talking about, so fuhgeddaboudit.

Although the “pitch” in your query is a noun, the story begins with the verb “to pitch,” which appeared in English in the 13th century, apparently derived from an unrecorded Old English root. The initial meaning of “to pitch” was “to thrust in, to drive in” and, by extension, “to fasten securely,” as if driving stakes into the ground (a sense we still use when we “pitch” a tent or “pitch camp”). The “thrust” or “drive in” sense of the verb produced “to pitch” in the sense of “to throw or fall,” which eventually gave us both “Harvey fainted and pitched forward into the punchbowl” and “The boss pitched my proposal into his wastebasket.” The “pitch” in baseball and other sports carries the added sense of “throw at a target,” echoing a bit of the “drive in” sense of the verb. The “fall” sense gave us “pitch” used to mean “to slope,” (“The roof pitched at a steep angle”) as well as the sort of “pitching” a ship does in a storm.

The verb “to pitch” produced dozens of other derivative meanings, and the noun form followed suit. Many of the noun’s uses, such as “musical pitch,” are difficult to connect to the original senses of the verb (although musical pitch is probably connected to the “slope” sense, perhaps in a related sense of “highest point”). This all makes “pitch” a notoriously difficult word to unwind. For purposes of answering your question, however, the connection between the original verb “to pitch” and a “football (or soccer) pitch” is, thankfully, pretty direct.

It all goes back to the “drive in and fasten securely” sense of the original verb “to pitch.” From the sense of “pitching” a tent by driving stakes into the ground came “pitch” meaning a specific piece of land claimed by a person (“The two meadows … were not divided, till the choice pitches were assigned in 1731,” 1875) or used for a particular purpose or activity (“I noticed that a newsvendor had left his pitch temporarily; his pile of papers lay on the wall,” 1932).

This sense of “place designated for an activity” is part of the logic behind “football pitch.” But wait, it gets better. “Football pitch,” “soccer pitch” and similar terms are derived from the use of “pitch” in “cricket pitch” (1871) which, of course, is the field where cricket games are played. More importantly, however, it’s the place where the cricket wickets are “pitched,” driven into the ground. It’s hard to get more literal than that, especially with a slippery little word like “pitch.” The uses of “pitch” for football fields, etc., are all derived from this cricket usage.