The Grammarphobia Blog

Out in left field

Q: Do you know the derivation of the phrase “out in left field”? I’ve looked in various references – my favorite, Cultural Literacy, doesn’t have it – and I’ve been unable to find its origin. Any answer would be greatly appreciated.

A: The phrase you mention, “out [or off] in left field,” originated in baseball lingo, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. It was first recorded in the 1930s, and means nonsensical, absurd, unreasonable, far from the mark – in short, out of it.

A related phrase, “from [or out of] left field,” meaning out of the blue or without warning, came along in the 1940s, also via baseball.

Random House says the “semantic development” of these “left field” expressions is uncertain, but they may have been influenced “by the fact that, owing to the distance involved, a putout throw from left field to first base is extremely difficult.”

But why left field instead of right? As Paul Dickson points out in The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary, right field is just as remote as left field. We may never know, but some theories have been put forward.

One is that in Babe Ruth’s day, nobody was likely to want left-field seats in Yankee Stadium, because the Babe was a right-fielder and fans in the left-field seats didn’t have a good view of him.

Another theory is that “out in left field” was a reference to a mental hospital (the Neuropsychiatric Institute) located behind left field in the old West Side Park in Chicago. So someone “out in left field” was acting like a nut case.

So far, all these are just theories, and they may be out in left field.

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