Words Matter

Striking Out

Part of an occasional series on the oddities of the English language

Lately I’ve been struck by the phase “to strike out.”

IMG_20180817_132234057.jpgI recently struck out on my own to start the writing business I’ve dreamed of for a decade. But in doing so, I wondered whether I struck out at my old agency job, as in failing to make it work. These two definitions feel antithetical to each other, yet they’re both accurate. (Meanwhile, I’m still catching references to baseball strikeouts as the September sun changes.)

So I did some digging.

“Striking out” is one of those odd phrasal verbs that has many (many!) meanings. The OED devotes 12 full pages, with 20 possible definitions just for the noun “strike.” Possible noun meanings range from c 1330 “a distance” and Chaucer’s 1386 “a bundle or hank of flax, hemp; etc” to “a large capture of fish” (1887), to the more modern usages. (The baseball sense dates to 1841, when it meant any contact with the ball, but the contemporary usage had evolved by the 1890s. The bowling usage dates from 1859, the labor union work stoppage is cited from 1810, and the nuclear war/military usage can be dated to 1942, all from etymonline.)

Several languages trace similar verb roots, contributing to today’s vast English possibilities: an astounding 88 potential verb definitions in the OED! “Strike” can be traced in Old English to the early 14th century as “strican: to go, flow, or rub lightly.” At roughly the same time, it was also used as a verb for “to deal a blow” AND as a noun (“a distance”). It always strikes (ahem) me when an old word has such different meanings that evolve at roughly the same time.

The verb also has kin in German (streichen: to stroke), Proto-Germanic (strikan: to stroke), Old Norse (strykva: to stroke), Middle Dutch (streken), Dutch (strijken: to smooth, stroke, rub), and Old High German (strihhan).

But it’s OED definition 83 (“strike out”), with 11 sub-definitions of its very own, that answers my question today:

A: to cancel or erase by or as by a stroke of a pen; to remove from a record, text, list, etc; also, to erase, to rub or wipe out (dating to 1530)

B: Mining 1778: Pryce Min. Cornub “When a Lode by any Flookan… [etc.] is interrupted or cut out, they say also, ‘She is struck out,’ or ‘She is lost.’” [Bonus definition: A flookan is a cross-course or transverse vein composed of clay.]

C: To produce or elicit as by a blow or stroke

D: To produce by a stroke of invention (a plan, scheme, fashion, etc.).

E: To represent in a working drawing or plan. Also, to sketch rapidly.

F: To open up, make for oneself (a path, course, line). Chiefly fig.

G: To go energetically

H: To hit violently, to lay about one (with the fists, a weapon, etc.).

I: In various games [the earliest reference dates to 1853 in the Portland Oregonian: “No doubt they will find that strikers have struck out,” with a more descriptive citation dating to 1874: “When the batsman strikes at a fair ball three times, and fails to hit it, and the ball be caught, or it be sent to first base in time to put the player out, he ‘strikes’ out., but it also harkens back to croquet

J: To draw out the scythe in mowing.

K: Of a pitcher in Baseball, to put (a batter) out by pitching three strikes to a batter. U.S.

Of these, I think D, F, and G are all apt for my new venture, but B is a good analogy for leaving my past agency. I’m enthusiastically charting my own course, but I maxed out the possibilities at my old job.

In the weeks since I first looked this up, I’ve noticed “strike” more than usual, in more usages. I suppose that’s the advantage of our polyglot melting pot of a language.  

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