Q: I wanted to call WNYC while you were discussing “off the wall,” but I was driving and couldn’t stop. I think this expression (like “screwball”) must come from baseball. Why “off the wall”? Because it’s hard to tell what direction a fly ball will take off a stadium wall.
A: I’m glad you didn’t try to call while driving!
You’re right, of course, that “screwball” is a baseball term, for a pitch that breaks in the opposite direction to a curve ball. The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary, by Paul Dickson, says it’s also been called a “corkscrew,” “fadeaway,” “incurve,” “reverse curve,” “screwgie,” and “scroogie.”
But the term (or an early version of it) apparently originated in cricket, not baseball, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and referred to a “ball bowled with ‘screw’ or spin.”
The first published reference in the OED is from an 1866 book on cricket: “A ‘screw’ ball, which in slow bowling would describe the arc of a circle from the pitch to the wicket, becomes in fast bowling a sharp angle.”
The cricket term is now obsolete, according to the OED, and as far as I can tell it didn’t influence the baseball usage.
The earliest OED citation for the term used in a baseball sense is from a 1928 article in the New York Times: “Haines is a large, healthy individual with … a ‘screw ball’ that ducks under many a well-meant swing with a hickory bludgeon.”
The pitch, called a fadeway when Christy Mathewson used it in the early 1900s, became known as a screwball after Carl Hubbell revived it in the late 1920s, according to Dickson’s dictionary.
Where did the name “screwball” come from? A minor league catcher, Hubbell told the New York Times, helped give the pitch its name by saying, ”That’s the screwiest thing I ever saw.”
The adjective “screwy,” by the way, has meant tipsy since 1820, and crazy or foolish since 1877, according to the OED. The word “screwed” has been used since 1697 to mean twisted or awry, and since 1837 to mean intoxicated.
The use of “screwball” to mean an eccentric or a nutty person originated in the US in the early 1930s and does indeed seem to be derived from baseball, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang. The earlier meanings of “screwy” and “screwed” probably played a role, too.
The first published reference for this usage in the OED is from a 1933 work by Paul Gallico in the Saturday Evening Post: “McKabe was already heading for the door. He heard Billers say: ‘Who is that screwball?’ “
Dickson’s baseball dictionary also has an entry for the expression “play it off the wall,” which means “To field a fly ball just before it hits an outfield wall or to field the ball after it bounces off the wall and before it hits the ground.”
I doubt, however, that this baseball usage is the derivation of our common phrase “off the wall.” Unfortunately, its origins are uncertain.
The current meaning of the phrase (odd, eccentric, crazy; or obnoxious, offensive, pointless) was not recorded before 1953, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. (The meaning of a 1937 reference is unclear.)
And while Random House cites dozens of published references to the expression, none of them come from baseball. Similarly, the OED lists eight published references to “off the wall,” none having to do with baseball.