Have you ever wondered where the phrase “Get on the ball” comes from? A few days ago, I was engaged in a conversation with a colleague. We were discussing fountain pens (that is all I write with unless I have to press through copies) and then he moved the conversation towards watches.
He shared his appreciation for fine watches and told me a story about one of his favorites brands, Ball, which he claimed is where the phrase “Get on the ball” originates. That got my curiosity piqued, so I turned to the great oracle, Google.
Here is the official story from the website. It has to do with trains and sounds convincing.
But. . .
Some authorities have suggested that ‘on the ball’ originated in the sporting arena, and alludes to runners being on the balls of their feet, eagerly ready to run a race.
Not so fast. . .
A more commonly advocated location for the source of ‘on the ball’ is the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. This is where the oldest surviving and best known time-ball is sited. The Greenwich time-ball was installed in 1833 to signal the accurate time to passing ships.
It was, and still is, raised just before 1pm each day and falls as 1pm strikes on the observatory’s clock. Captains needed to have their ships’ chronometers set accurately in order to navigate correctly, hence they needed to be ‘on the ball’. It’s a nice story and there are any number of tour guides around the observatory who are all too happy to repeat it.
Need I go on? It isn’t true.
The phrase ‘on the ball’ did actually originate in the sporting arena, but relates to the eyes rather than the feet. It is a contraction of the earlier expression ‘keep your eye on the ball’, which advice has been given to participants in virtually every known ball game. For the source, we need to look to early ball games. The phrase is recorded in early records of cricket, golf, croquet and baseball and many people regard baseball as the origin.
Baseball may or may not have been the origin of ‘keep your eye on the ball’, but it did take over the use of the phrase. As well as as the batters ‘keeping their eye on the ball.
So, there is your lesson for the day, complete with four endings. Pick your favorite.
Mrs. Humphrey, my 6th grade teacher used to say, “A day you don’t learn something new is a day that you have wasted” I’ll never forget that, or her.
Thanks to phrases.org.uk for the background info.