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On the Ball

Posted by ESC on May 04, 2002

In Reply to: On the Ball posted by James Briggs on May 04, 2002

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: : Why do people say "on the ball" when they mean very capable? For example "Joe did that well. He is really on the ball." What is the "ball"?

: I've always understood that the 'ball' is a soccer ball. If someone's 'on it', then they are in in control of it, in command, 'on duty' over it, just like a soldier can be 'on patrol' or 'on parade'. What do others think?

Since I'm from Kentucky, I thought it had to do with basketball. Everyone in this state is really big on UK (University of Kentucky - Go Big Blue) and University of Louisville "Cardinals" (Go Cards) basketball.

ON THE BALL/TO HAVE SOMETHING ON THE BALL/TO BE ON THE BALL - "To be alert, clever, at one's best. This term was originally American and came from baseball, where it referred to a pitched ball with 'something' on it - that is, spin or a curve. A pitcher who was working well was said to have something on the ball, which in the early 1900s's was transferred to any individual who was doing something well. The expression has slightly different meanings in other sports. In soccer a player in possession of the ball is said to be on the ball. In Australian rules football it means playing in a ruck position so as to be allowed to follow the ball anywhere in the field of play (a ruck is a group of players, including a rover and three followers, who are free to play all over the field, whereas their teammates must stay in fairly fixed positions." From "Southpaws & Sunday Punches and other Sporting Expressions" by Christine Ammer (Penguin Books, New York, 1993). "With it; sharp and competent. The transfer seems to have been from baseball, where a pitcher who is able to get something on the ball (movement, not a foreign substance) is likely to have a good outing. 'Collier's' (magazine) had the expression in 1912: 'He's got nothing on the ball -- nothing at all.' The positive and extended version turned up in 'Mademoiselle' (magazine) in 1935: 'The lass has much on the ball.'" From The Dictionary of Cliches by James Rogers (Ballantine Books, New York, 1985).

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