Last Saturday's post was writing about studying Latin with my son. Groping for a way to convey that I understood that drilling Latin declinations together is not the standard dad-and-lad activity, I wrote, "Okay, it wasn't throwing the old pepper around in the front yard, but it would have to do."
In my mind, "the old pepper" was a 1930s, Red Barber kind of slang for a baseball. It was like calling a lefty "a southpaw."
I was certain of that.
A reader tweeted me that it wasn't so. John K. wrote, "Actually, playing pepper involves a bat. But don't sweat it."
But of course I did sweat it. Someone was saying I was wrong. I hate to be wrong, just like most people. Experience tells me, often it is the person offering the correction who is wrong. Or so I hoped, hopping onto Nexis, the newspaper data base. Nothing under "throw the old pepper." Nothing under "toss the old pepper." Almost as if I had made a mistake.
Plus "play pepper" and 'bat" drew over 100 hits.
No, no, no. Determined to be right—the usual sin, common as dirt—I fled to the Internet. "Throwing the old pepper" drew one hit--mine. Hmm, maybe I could recast my mistake as a neologism, the creation of a word or, in this case, a phrase. If it were a mere mistake, other people would have made it too. Being unique, it could count as creativity. I could try to make that argument work...claim it was hapax legemenon, to trot out a $5 term -- a word or phrase that appears only once.
A little voice said: Yes, unique because it's wrong. There were a few other hits connected to "tossing the old pepper pot" but that obviously was a different matter altogether.
I kept trying. "Toss the old pepper" drew exactly one hit -- this rather sweet photo, posted May 14, 2009, of a Little Leaguer. I'd hesitate to post it -- people are paranoid about their kids -- but the mitt manages to obscure most of his face and besides, four years on, he's probably halfway through high school and unrecognizably slouchy and stubbly.
Why does any of this matter? I suppose the short answer is, it doesn't. But if you care about language, you care about how it's used. I'm not sure if I'm admitting a mistake—okay, I'm admitting a mistake, in a round-about way— but also appealing for "throwing the old pepper" to become a phrase attached to playing catch with a baseball. It sounds right, doesn't it? Maybe I'm not mistaken, just ahead of the curve.
Or maybe I'm not. Maybe I've become unhinged, and should just acknowledge the gaffe and move on. Maybe I should have just moved on without a word. Still, c'mon.... No more throwing the old pepper? Don't seem right...
The plot thickens:Barry Aldridge offers the following. At 3:14 Bugs Bunny says, "That's the old pepper!" So at least I'm in good company. Okay, I feel vindicated. And petty for feeling vindicated. The short, by the way, "Baseball Bugs" is from 1946.
To watch the cartoon, click here.
Photo atop blog: a stairway in the Merchandise Mart; Above: throwing the old pepper in Northbrook, summer.