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Strike as an English word (meaning to hit) is certainly older than strike as a baseball term (meaning not to hit), so what puzzles me is that the word adopted for the action is the exact opposite of the action.

Etymonline indicates that the first use is in the mid-19th century, but gives no indication of how it came to be used.

Can anyone shed any light on why such an ill-suited word was chosen for the action of not striking the ball? If it is is actually an appropriate word for this, why is it?

(Additionally, to be stricken by something, usually an illness I believe, means to be afflicted by it, and seems to be a metaphor for being hit by an disease.)

Edit: Interesting things to consider
In the context of the American court systemref (and probably elsewhere), strike is used to mean "remove". Similarly, this is strike text.

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I'm not too sure about the synonyms and antonyms tags both applying to this (I just thought it would be an interesting, relevant pairing)... –  Jim Sep 30 '11 at 19:25
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Plus, of course, you can be stricken from the record, but I don't think that will happen to this question. –  FumbleFingers Sep 30 '11 at 20:48
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About the synonym/antonym tags: Wikipedia's page on auto-antonyms includes strike as an example of an auto-antonym (a word which is its own antonym). Related: Is the term “antagonym” widely used to describe a word that is its own antonym? I edited the question so it has an auto-antonyms tag –  Daniel Sep 30 '11 at 21:01
    
How does this relate to workers "going on strike"? Could there me some correlation with that use? –  Lee Quarella Oct 2 '11 at 19:24
    
Check the etymonline link in the question, it explains it. –  Jim Oct 3 '11 at 2:00

5 Answers 5

up vote 13 down vote accepted

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of strike in baseball was originally referred to as:

An act of striking at the ball, characterized as a fair or foul strike (see quot. 1874); three ‘foul strikes’ cause the batter to be put out.

The literal definition is (there is also the figurative one of having "a strike against you):

A ‘foul strike’, or any act or shortcoming on the batter's part which incurs the same penalty. Hence, a pitched ball recorded against the batter; esp. as one of three counts against the batter

It was first used in the 1800s:

1841 Picayune (New Orleans) 25 May 2/2 If ‘Edith’ wishes to see ‘a great strike’‥, let her walk down Water street‥and see the ‘bachelors’ make the ball fly.

So a strike in baseball comes from the attempt to strike the ball. It seems that it was used positively for a while--there are quotes referring to "great strikes". It looks like our current use of strike could be a shortening of foul strike--it only maintained its negative meaning. By the end of the 1800s, it still referred to the physical act of hitting something:

1896 R. G. Knowles & M. Morton Baseball 103 Strike.—When the batsman tries and fails to hit a ball delivered to him by the pitcher, or refuses to strike at a fair ball.

By the 1900s, however, it was a negative thing:

1912 C. Mathewson Pitching in Pinch 12 It put me in the hole with the count two balls and one strike.

This is the way we use it today.

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The word "strike" probably is derived from the English game cricket. A batter in cricket is a "striker" .

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From the pitcher's point of view. The pitcher is striking his target.

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Etymologically to strike is a very complicated verb. If you study to strike in a longer dictionary one can only wonder about the diverse meanings. My view is that several different but similar verbs have intermingled and developed the same form. Some meanings correspond to German strecken, streichen, streifen which all have different meanings. So it would be a good idea if dictionaries separated the entry of to strike in several entries as to strike 1, 2, 3. Probably there should be a forth entry "to strike 4, unclear origin".

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I'm not sure whether and to what extent this information conflicts with Simchona's answer (which focuses on "swinging strikes" (that is, attempts to strike the ball that fail to touch the ball or that cause the ball to go foul), but the so-called "called strike" (in which the batter doesn't swing at a pitch in the "strike zone" above home plate appears to date back to the late 1860s at least.

From "Our National Game: The New Rules," in Our Boys and Girls, volumes 5–6 (1869) [combined snippets]:

Rule III. The Batting Department.

The batsman must stand astride the home base line when striking at the ball. If he does not, "foul strikes" must be called on him, and three such strikes put him out. No base can be run on a "foul strike." Batsmen must strike in rotation, and any one absent when his turn comes must be decided out, unless absent by sickness. The first to go to the bat, after the first inning, is the player next to the one who was third out on the previous inning. If the batsman refuses good balls, a strike must be called ; on third called strike he must try to get his base; but if the ball be caught on the first bound behind, he is out. The striker is out if a fair ball' be caught on the fly, or be held at first base before he touches the base ; if at the same time, he is not out; or if a foul ball be caught on the fly or bound.

In other words, the rules of the game of "base ball" in the 1860s provided that a batsman could strike the ball "fair" (by striking it while standing astride the home base line) or "foul" (by striking the ball while not properly astride the home base line), or he could have a strike called against him (by not swinging his bat at "good balls." Conspicuously absent from this account is any mention of "swinging strikes"—attempting to strike a pitched ball but missing it altogether—perhaps because, in the early years of the game, missing the ball altogether was a relatively rare occurrence, since "the ball was pitched or lobbed to the plate underhand," according to Peverelly's National Game.

That description also helps explain why the verb pitch, rather than throw or hurl, was used to describe how the pitcher released the ball toward the batsman: In the early days of the game the pitcher's action was closer to tossing a horseshoe than to throwing a stone.

In the case of a "called strike," it isn't clear whether one strike is called for each "good ball" that the batsman refuses to offer at or whether it is a cumulative punishment for taking too many "good balls" in one at-bat. But it does seem clear that the word strike is applied in this situation because the failure to swing is treated as if the batsman had swung at the ball from the wrong position on the home base line and therefore been guilty of a "foul strike."

Edmund Routledge, Every Boy's Book: A Complete Encyclopædia of Sports and Amusements (1869) repeats (with slight variations and greater detail) the rules outlined in "Our National Game," and then discusses situations where the "striker" either doesn't swing at a pitch at all or swings at it but misses:

Should a striker stand at the bat without striking at fair balls, for the apparent purpose of delaying the game, or of giving advantage to a player, the umpire, after warning him, shall call one strike, and, if he persists in such action, two, and three strikes. When three strikes are called, and the ball be caught, either before touching the ground or upon the first bound, the striker shall be declared out, provided the balls struck at are not those on which balls [pitches that are not "fair" to strike at] or balks [illegally thrown pitches] have been called, or not those struck at for the purpose of willfully striking out. If three balls are struck at and missed, and the last one is not caught, either flying or upon the first bound, the striker must attempt to make his run, and he can be put out on the bases in the same manner as if he had struck a fair ball.

Evidently, the justification for using the verb strike to describe a swing in which the bat doesn't touch the ball, or to describe a failure to swing at a fair pitch at all, is that the actual or ascribed action isn't "striking" (making contact) but "striking at" (attempting to make contact).

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