[Ads-l] "shut out" (baseball)

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jun 29 23:57:09 UTC 2020

The baseball sense of the phrasal verb "shut out" meaning "to prevent (the
opposing team) from scoring, esp. for an entire game" is in OED2 and
Dickson's Baseball Dictionary from 1881. Some other sources (such as Joseph
McBride's "High and Inside: An A to Z Guide to the Language of Baseball")
provide an 1879 cite:

Troy (NY) Daily Times, July 3, 1879
The Troys have at last been whitewashed -- "shut out," as the horsemen say.

I can't find a scan of that issue of the Troy Daily Times to confirm (the
Fulton History site appears not to have any issues of the paper from 1879).
The suggestion that it comes from horse-racing seems very plausible, as
sports pages in the 1870s often used "shut out" in racing items when a
horse was prevented from winning. (Dickson gives a more elaborate origin,
saying it referred to "a bettor who arrives at the window too late to wager
a bet and is 'shut out'," but that scenario isn't necessary to explain the
expression's use in racing and is likely anachronistic anyhow.)

Here's a slight antedating where the meaning is clear:

Chicago Tribune, June 20, 1879, p. 5, col. 3
The Cincinnatis were shut out by the Bostons to-day, but they came very
near getting a run on the last inning.
[Boston won the game 6-0.]

Earlier examples that I've seen are not so clear-cut -- they may involve a
team or player being prevented from succeeding in a more general way. (I've
found it used for baserunners being kept from advancing or scoring in 1877,
and for batters being "shut out at the plate" in 1878.)

The following are transitional cases, involving teams rather than players
being "shut out," where the meaning is still ambiguous:

Daily Memphis Avalanche, July 3, 1877, p. 4, col. 5
The visitors are every way weaker, and were the Reds in better trim they
could doubtless easily "shut them out."
[This refers to a two-game series where the Memphis Reds lost the first
game 4-3 but won the second 9-2, so in this case "shut out" may have been
equivalent to "sweep the series."]
Minneapolis Star Tribune, Aug. 10, 1877, p. 4, col. 2
To-morrow the return game will be played at St. Paul, when the Minneapolis
team will endeavor to shut out the Reds, or at least give them a hard day's
Boston Globe, June 2, 1878, p. 8, col. 1
In the fourth inning also Nichols' pitching began to be effective, and the
brilliant fielding by the home nine thereafter shut out the Milwaukees.
[The Milwaukee team was indeed prevented from scoring from the 4th inning

The last one from the Globe is close to the modern meaning, though it's
unusual to say Team A's fielding "shut out" Team B -- the agent of the verb
is typically the team as a whole or the pitching staff.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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