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What is the origin of the phrase from out of left field? My understanding is that the meaning is unexpected, or odd. Is that correct?

Real world examples of the phrase being used badly would be great :)

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Bad usage: The fan burst onto the outfield from across the first baseline and ran at the pitcher who was watching the play unfolding at third. Before he realized what was happening the fan had closed the distance and landed a solid punch to the back of the pitcher's head. When asked about it later ther pitcher replied, "It was so unexpected and happened so quickly- it's like it came out of left field." –  Jim Mar 23 '12 at 7:36
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@jim: I'm not too familiar with baseball, is that bad usage because it's tautological? or because it came out of right field? Also, is that a real example? –  naught101 Mar 23 '12 at 7:43
    
You guessed it- it's because it came out of right field. All persons depicted here are fictional and fabricated solely for your entertainment. Any similarity to any person living or dead is purely coincidental. –  Jim Mar 23 '12 at 7:49
    
Also for the record, when I wrote that example, your question did not ask for "Real world examples" simply "examples of it being used badly" –  Jim Mar 23 '12 at 7:56
    
Yes, sorry about that. Should have been clearer anyway. Good example regardless. –  naught101 Mar 23 '12 at 8:00
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This phrase comes from baseball. Wikipedia has a thorough description of the etymology:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left_fielder#Out_of_left_field

Among other theories listed there: "During this time period, the shape of the outfield in Yankee Stadium roughly approximated an oval,[3] with the "long" portion pointing to left-center. A left-fielder would thus typically be stationed further back from the action than the center or right fielders, as he would have a greater amount of ground to cover. Hence, "out in left field" meant one was furthest from the action taking place at home-plate, and the most likely to draw erroneous, fanciful conclusions about that action."

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As witness the title of the famous Festschrift of humorous and satiric papers on linguistics: Studies Out In Left Field: Defamatory Essays Presented to James D. McCawley on the Occasion of His 33rd or 34th Birthday. –  John Lawler Mar 23 '12 at 17:20
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Wouldn't a right handed batsman hit the ball to the left? –  mgb Mar 23 '12 at 20:02
    
@mgb, I don't know much about cricket, but as the Wikipedia article mentions, right-handed batters do tend to pull to left field. –  phoog Mar 27 '12 at 0:06
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That "theory" (the Yankee Stadium rationalization) seems not only to be a case of Wikipedia error, but also one of urban myth's supplanting of factual origins. The mistaken usage, "…out in left field" (and its similarly misinformed pseudo derivative, "…out of left field") can arguably be said, at a fundamental level, to have resulted, apart from any connection to original meaning, solely from the circumstance that the majority of people are right handed—a recapitulation of sorts of the sinister-dexterous versus right-&-left handedness linguistic dichotomy; and, not surprisingly, because the Internet is no less effective propagating and perpetuating error than accuracy. (An unrelated example of how people's natural proclivities can bring about rephrasing of once logical (albeit likewise niche vernacular) sayings would be the transmutation of "You cannot eat your cake and have it, too" (a clearly sensible proposition) into "You cannot have your cake and eat it, too" (a statement fraught with ambiguity... to no recognizable effect).

In times past, when a substantially greater number of Americans--youth and adult alike--played, followed, or otherwise actively and socially participated in the game, the then well known, baseball-derived expression, "…out in right field" (no, not "out of..." but the allusion could still hold, albeit with dubious effect and validity) was (and still is) not in reference to size or distances in a ball park: were that the case, would we not speak of things being “from out of” these “parks' left” or “those parks’ right” fields? Or, collectively-speaking, of their being from out in, or out of, an archetypal park’s center field…the field which, indeed, would circumscribe the greatest area and subtend the greatest distances in the majority of parks...and "sand" lots?

So, if not the greater space and longer distances of the eastward and northward situated baseball outfields, then what would explain how and why that outfield which is shortest and smallest gives rise (and does so for an erstwhile self-evident reason) to a figure of speech pertaining—rightly or wrongly—to some aberrant or derogatory quality or feature?

To aficionados of baseball lore and novice players of the game (especially those latter who have experienced e being "exiled" to right), that question devolves to a set of observations not always obvious to baseball-non-participants, or even to ball park spectators, namely, that:

  • Most hitters are right handed and hit right handed (from the 3rd-base side of the plate).
  • Most batter “connected” pitched balls are hit straight away or "pulled" left-field-ward from the batter's box (along trajectories away from right field).
  • Accordingly, most successfully-batted pitched balls are pursued, are fielded, drop free, or get by within the relatively greater area (vis-à-vis right field) that is encompassed by left and center fields.
  • Conversely, a proportionately small number of pitches are struck into and have need to be pursued in right field, as a consequence of which….
    • Accordingly faster (running), stronger (longer throwing), better sighted (for fly ball catching), more alert (faster-reacting)—in general, the more athletically gifted, healthier, less injury-impaired, and more highly regarded individuals are most apt to be assigned or "chosen up" to the center and left field positions; whereas…
    • The less demanding (and, on the sand lot, the usually last remaining) right-field "vacancy" is the one most likely to be filled by the “least and last” viable aspirant…(in child and youth contests...the position that goes—not infrequently with some measure of stigma—to the boy deemed least reliable and, therefore, best placed “away from the action”—the position also which, sad to say, occasionally evinces a measure of comparative peer group acceptance. (To what degree any right field “bias” carries over into varsity, the minors, and the majors would be a topic “not without dissention,” but it is well known that many of the game's most productive, most illustrious players found themselves relegated to right field only after the rigors of playing left and center had worked its toll on their legs and leg joints, leaving hitting prowess as a sole remaining team asset, to be protected and extended in the relative sequester of right field.

Because of the long periods of right fielder idleness between hits to right, a relatively inexperienced right field player can sometimes fall subject to lapses of attention... even so far as to be caught daydreaming, or napping standing (in baseball parlance, to be caught flat footed) when a fly or drive soars over, by, under or sometimes even into a too-late roused, might-have-been “fielder.”

Whence a manager’s or fellow player’s derogation, and a broader populace’s aspersion, directed, respectively, toward or with regard to a player, or person, who is found, or deemed likely to be found, in a state of least attention (alertness, awareness, wakefulness,…) when a situation most calls for it; a baseball allusion (and double entendre) in which, be it within the paradigm of baseball or otherwise, and irrespective of any specific location or context, a person, for lack of attention or by taint of wandering mind, is said to be or have been “out in right field.” (By double entendre is meant “out” also in the sense of altered consciousness.)

So we have today a frequently used, and almost as frequently miss-used figure of speech (the latter for which we even have highly-paid sport commentators to thank) of which it can be said, that because of a mere physical-genetic “accident” of nature, called handedness, its actual significance has come to escape virtually all who speak it. Would it be fair, then, to say that the …bastardized form, out in, or from out in, left field represents a societal cultural diminishment? In some regards the answer must be yes; but not in all regards, which is to say: that in error virtue (of sorts) can sometimes be found.

So it is that when we most often hear mention of a thing’s “coming from” (as opposed to a person's being) "out in right (or left) field” (or, in another baseball allusion, of its being “off the” [outfield] “wall” [and thus harder to “catch”…its meaning], could it not be said that the speaker has, unwittingly or otherwise (nah) made his own inattention, heedlessness, or misunderstanding the object of derision in place of another (in the proverbial outfield, from whence the thing came or bounced)? Is not the equivalent defense, “it came unexpectedly”, also an admission that the one to whom it came was caught unawares? Just as if he, not the other, had been "out in right field"?

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Wow. Your sentence lengths are astounding. –  naught101 Aug 9 '13 at 4:29
    
+1 for example of (now rare) long form writing abound with rare words (almost on the verge of "inkhorn-laden writing") :) Though it's a little bit hard to follow because of lenght it's also a nice example of how widely accepted etimologies can be incorrect (there are plenty of other examples, e.g. "black friday"'s most polular etimology is not the right one) –  Mikhail Dec 13 '13 at 11:47
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The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2008) says:

left field noun > out of left field unexpected, unforeseen, from nowhere US, 1946

left field adjective different, out of the ordinary. Figurative use of baseball jargon US, 1967

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997) says:

out in left field Also, out of left field. Eccentric, odd; also, mistaken. For example, The composer's use of dissonance in this symphony is way out in left field, or His answer was out of left field; he was totally wrong. This idiom refers to baseball's left field but the precise allusion is disputed. Among the theories proposed is that in some ballparks the left field wall is farther from the batter than the wall in right field. Another is that in early ballparks, left field was often larger than right field and therefore was home to more lost balls and general confusion. [Mid-1900s] Also see FAR OUT.

See also Safire's Political Dictionary for more discussion.


I found some examples earlier than 1946.

Billboard magazine, 24 Apr 1943, "Religion All Of A Sudden: Groups With Self-Styled Piety Capitalizing on War Nerves by Buys on Indies But Nets Sneer":

NEW YORK. April 17. Latest twist in radio linked with the war is the exceptional number of quasi-clerical groups and individuals who have come out of left field in recent months and are trying to buy, not promote, radio time.

A direct baseball pun is made in Public Utilities Fortnightly, Volume 25, Issue 1, Public Utilities Reports, 1940 (snippet, but date seems correct):

PRESIDENT Roosevelt has started the session off on a strong note of economy. His budget, with expenditures substantially reduced below those of a year ago, places the burden on Congress if it adds materially to proposed appropriations. The President in this message took a more positive stand against unnecessary expenditures than he has since the night in October, 1932, when he made his famous economy speech at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh from a platform erected over the second base. It might be suggested that in this respect January, 1940, marks the first time since then that he has been out of left field.

However, the earliest citation in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang is 1937 in S.F. Chronicle (April 19) 2H:

Lefty Gomez [New York Yankees pitcher noted for his eccentric humor] is "way out in left field without a glove" in baseball jargon. In other words he is as proficient at whipping over a smart crack as a sizzling strike.

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