Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Throwing the old pepper"

     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.


  1. Not to pile on, but "...the mitt manages to obscure most of his face..." Huh? Not in this photo, it doesn't.

    If you're looking for an old-timey, Red Barber-era phrase to use, I'd suggest "toss around the ol' horsehide."

  2. So you'd prefer ..."the lower half of his face." Thanks for your comment, maybe I'll revisit the issue next Saturday.

  3. With both Chicago baseball teams in disarray and fall in the air, maybe "tossing around the old pigskin" would have been preferable. Though it doesn't conjure up the same father-son nostalgic imagery of playing catch.

  4. Embrace the wrongness. I mean, it's not like the phrase (which did strike me, Baseball Scholar, as . . . a bit off, but I let it go, because who really cares?) is totally out of left field. But some things that are real never sounded right to me: I'd never "have a catch," I'd "play catch." Some such differences might be regionalisms, but some can get very local. A game where you bounce a rubber ball off the front steps of a home, or the side of a garage in an alley, can be called "pinners" or "ledge": and guys in my neighborhood to this day argue about which is "right." Both, neither. It's language, not Chemistry.

    And if you manage to get this term into general (or plural, at least) usage, then you've got a felix culpa here.

    Example of one: "slashie" as a term for a combination bar/liquor store,a sort of establishment common (once) in many Chicago neighborhoods. NO ONE IN CHICAGO ever called such places "slashies" until someone writing for Time Out Chicago did so (someone, I might add, from Brooklyn). Now the term is everywhere, especially among people under 30. I hate it, but have lost the battle. No need to throw the pepper at it any longer.

    Nope, still doesn't work.

  5. Uh, sorry, Neil, no redemption. "Pepper" as a term for "speed" on a fastball is one thing. That's "pepper," not "toss the old pepper" as in throw the ball.

  6. a.) I don't understand why this bothers you so much, Neil. It was a simple, relatively understandable mistake. To me, the gravity of the error is along the lines of believing your whole life that the lyrics to a famous song go a certain way and then eventually learning that the way one "heard'' them was way off. A little embarrassing perhaps, but no big deal.

    b.) I particularly don't understand why you're still looking for vindication, because it seems to me that you'd readily concede that sports are not your cup of tea, in general, given that they're the "same thing happening over and over again."

    c.) Like the esteemed Mr. Savage, I thought when I read it that it was a bizarre usage. But I was not inclined to offer a correction, as I thought it was kind of amusing, if not charming. I found it delightfully ironic that, in attempting to show that you're just a regular sports-loving guy despite the Latin drilling, you demonstrated that you are, indeed, more familiar with nerdy, Poindexterish Latin than with the all-American pastime. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

  7. The thing about the old pepper is, it's the same damn thing happening over and over again.

  8. Neil. What's the derivation or meaning of the idiom "a $5 term"? I never heard that before and I'm 70 now. Dan


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