Two things about this verb:

1) I learn after all these years that the -l- is not normally pronounced (M-W, AHD; the OED, like AHD, has only /bɔːk/); I just asked my wife and she is with the majority. I must have picked up a spelling pronunciation as a wee lad.

2) The author of “Why Managers Fear a Remote-Work Future” (an interesting piece in its own right: “But the anti-remote crowd seems to believe that the responsibility of a 9-to-5 employee isn’t simply the work but the appearance, optics, and ceremony of the work” — preach it!) doesn’t seem to know what “balk” means: he writes “Ultimately, Spielberg balked” when he means “Ultimately, Spielberg caved” (or “gave in”). None of the dictionaries I have consulted include such a sense. But after all these years I have learned that new senses often escape my notice, so I’ll ask the Hattic multitudes: have you ever seen or heard “balk” used in that way (to mean “give in”)?


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I say /bɔːk/*; or at least I would, if I ever said the word at all …

    I agree about the meaning. The use to mean “caved” (pretty much the opposite of the One True Meaning) is a barbarous solecism (and will doubtless become standard usage quite soon.) I haven’t come across it myself hitherto, however.

    * Distinct from bork in my own speech. Non-rhotics might pronounce the l to distinguish the two, I imagine … “I am baulked” is not at all the same as “I am borked.”

  2. earthtopus says

    I have seen and use “balk” to mean “give in” (which I think I pronounce L-fully), and until this post had thought it an unremarkable extension of meaning. To balk is to flinch, and whoever flinches first concedes.

  3. A new usage to me also. You can see how it arises — Spielberg balked at maintaining his stance.

  4. I have seen and use “balk” to mean “give in” (which I think I pronounce L-fully), and until this post had thought it an unremarkable extension of meaning. To balk is to flinch, and whoever flinches first concedes.

    Well there you go. Once again I learn something just by asking!

  5. Could this meaning have arisen from the use of ‘balk’ in baseball? When the pitcher balks, the runners advance and the pitcher has to start over. It’s not exactly the same as giving in but it’s a concession of error.

  6. Yeah, it’s a sense I’ve seen. And I follow the logic, though I wouldn’t typically use it.

    To me, “caved” describes a situation where “they” want Spielberg (for example) to do the thing, and he is reluctant but eventually relents.

    “Balked” paints the picture that they and Spielberg have been staring each other down in a battle of wills or metaphorical game of chicken. Spielberg didn’t have what it takes to pull the trigger, or didn’t have the nerve, or feared the imminent clash or its consequences.

  7. I… I thought that’s what this word meant.

  8. I hope lexicographers are taking notice.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    When a horse or mule balks, it doesn’t do what the relevant human wanted it to do, thus inconveniently interfering with the human’s plans. If you had somehow assumed that the horse/mule had initially shared the human’s goal but then “caved” rather than fulfill that goal, this extension would seem natural, but that assumption seems implausible in terms of the psychology of the animals in question.

    But there’s also a transitive “to balk,” meaning something like thwart, frustrate, place obstacles in the path of, which might plausibly lead to a backformed intransitive sense closer to the Spielberg use than analogizing Spielberg to a horse would.

  10. A balk in baseball is a fairly uncommon occurrence, although not really rare (like, say, an unassisted triple play). You probably have to watch for a while before seeing one.* A balk occurs when a pitcher gets too far into the movement of pitching the ball toward home plate but does not complete the action. There are a number of elements to determining whether a throwing movement constitutes a balk, related to whether the pitcher’s rear foot is in contact with the pitching rubber, which direction he steps with his front foot, and so on. The unusual penalty for a balk (runners already on base advancing one base**). The unusual penalty exists because a balk is being treated as an unfair pickoff attempt. If the pitcher goes through their whole windup, but then, instead of throwing home, throws to the first baseman, this is considered an unfair way to catch the runner on first off the bag. So the runner is awarded second base, as they would have received with a successful steal. (Perhaps Richard Hershberger can tell us more about how the balk rule developed as part of the development of base stealing.) However, I think most balks I have actually seen in games involved not active pickoff attempts, but rather the pitcher getting flustered somehow and not completing a pitch they started.

    Phonologically, I have heard baseball fans (and announcers) use a lot of different pronunciations for balk: like “bock,” or “bawk,” or sometimes as spelled. I think most people who watch baseball regularly get to hear the word before they see it written down, since (as a comparatively uncommon and not terribly interesting feature of the game) it is very seldom mentioned in baseball writing. (Nobody quotes statistics for a pitcher on their number of balks.) I personally had been hearing the word from more serious baseball fans for some time before I realized it was the same word balk that I was familiar with from other contexts.

    As J.W. Brewer points out, balk is, more generally, an either-way verb. Someone may balk at continuing when facing an obstacle, or the obstacle may balk them.

    * It has these features in common with application of the infield fly rule, with which it also shares some other peculiarities. Both rules seem strangely unlike anything else that appears in the baseball rulebook, and it is not obvious why they exist, although they make perfect sense when fully explained.

    ** I have never seen a pitcher balk home a runner on third, but I would like to, just because it would amusing.

  11. cuchuflete says

    I’ve been listening to baseball broadcasts for nearly seven decades and the majority, if not all, of the play-by-play announcers pronounce the “L”. Phil Rizzuto may have been an exception.
    I wonder if this may have been due, somehow, to his non-rhotic tendencies.

    “ A balk is an illegal act by the pitcher when one or more runners are on base. The rule is in place to prevent a pitcher from deceiving the baserunners. When a balk is called, […] ”

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    Like hat, I pronounce “balk” (on the perhaps rare occasions when I have a reason to say it aloud) with the /l/, but I am pleased to learn that I may have just picked this up from people talking baseball as opposed to it being a mere spelling pronunciation. I also pronounce “caulk” with an /l/, and it strikes me that it may be relevant that: (1) I don’t have the cot/caught merger; (2) I pronounce “balk” and “caulk” with my cot vowel but “chalk” and “talk” and “walk” with my “caught” vowel; so thus (3) it perhaps does not seem intuitive to my subconscious lexicon that “balk” and “caulk” should fall into that same don’t-pronounce-the-/l/-in-the-spelling pattern.

  13. In Dutch, the verb balken means to bray.

  14. I have never seen a pitcher balk home a runner on third

    I have; I want to say it was a Mets pitcher, but that may be because of course it would be a Mets pitcher. I don’t actually remember. Steven Ellis writes:

    Another way to fake out a runner on third is with your lift leg. When you are about ready to make the throw over to third, use your lift leg to fake him out. You are technically allowed 45 degrees with your front leg, however most umpires won’t call you for a balk if you go past this limit. This is called a balk move and is a very effective pickoff most often used by lefties.

    To perform a balk move to third base, as you are about to bring your lift leg down, bring it towards home just enough to make the runner think you are delivering the ball to the plate. As he extends his lead off, step toward third base and pick him off. After you throw the ball, be sure to walk towards third base to avoid the other coaches claiming that you balked.

    You can see a run balked in (just a few months ago) here:

    The relevant rule is OBR 5.07(a)(2) Comment, which states, “With a runner or runners on base, a pitcher will be presumed to be pitching from the Set Position if they stand with their pivot foot in contact with and parallel to the pitcher’s plate, and their other foot in front of the pitcher’s plate, unless they notify the umpire that they will be pitching from the Windup Position under such circumstances prior to the beginning of an at-bat [or after a runner advances during an at-bat].”

  15. I wouldn’t have balked at this use of balk — it was only after reading the M-W definitions that I realized it differed from the usual meaning in a non-straightforward way. The word isn’t really part of my active vocabulary but I definitely wouldn’t pronounce the L; the influence of walk and talk is too strong.

  16. Both LPD and CEPD list both pronunciations — but only for British English; for American English they only have l-less pronunciations.

  17. 1) This Brit has only an l-less pronunciation. I’ve heard it pronounced with an ‘l’.

    2) “balk at” for me means only ‘refuse’/’stop’.

    Oh, there is the sense in Billiards/Snooker alternative spelling for “baulk line”.

    Wiktionary tells me “Balk” is a surname; but doesn’t give a pronunciation. What language(s) does that come from? Is their pronunciation interfering?

  18. There is the actress Fairuza Balk, known primarily for starring in Return to Oz and The Craft. In this interview, the first thing* Craig Kilborn asks her about is the pronunciation of her last name, which she confirms as “bawk.”

    * Okay, it’s actually the second thing. He asks how she is doing as she sits down first.

  19. PlasticPaddy says

    I know a German with surname Balke and would not be surprised to meet a Balk (compare schul(t)z, schul(t)ze, Fran(c)k, Fran(c)ke).

  20. What AntC said.

    I’ve never heard “baulk” (disappointing that you didn’t mention the non-US spelling) pronounced with an “l”. Never.

    I have always understood “baulk” as meaning something like “to refuse to do something, often something unpleasant, risky or dubious, that you are expected to do (perhaps as part of your duties, or under pressure from someone who feels it is your duty), often (but not necessarily) through a realisation of the negative consequences for your reputation or the invidious or dangerous position it puts you in”. Can possibly refer to pulling out of an implied commitment when the implications of that commitment become obvious (e.g., when it becomes clear that a commitment to making sure that someone doesn’t spill the beans extends to murdering them). For mules, of course, the reason for refusal is far less nuanced.

    “Cave in” has the opposite meaning — to accept under pressure despite earlier refusal or reservations.

  21. Hmm. Grist for the mill. Never occurred to me before, but “bawlk” (first syllable of “Balkan”) is how I’d pronounce the baseball term, but only in that context. Otherwise, it’s “bawk,” rhymes with “talk” and “caulk.”

  22. To clarify my previous explanation, “baulk” basically means saying “I’m not going to do that!”

  23. With you on both pronunciation and meaning(s).

  24. I’m curious how much people’s impressions of what they say are colored by whether they have the COT-CAUGHT merger. (I don’t.)

    The articulation of my tongue after the “aw” sound suggests I’m positioned to make an “l” sound.

    For me, gawk, hawk, and squawk do not seem to rhyme with balk, caulk, chalk, Dundalk, Falk, talk, and walk, but there aren’t any minimum pairs, so I may well have a spelling pronunciation too – or at least think I do.

  25. I don’t have the merger, and I do pronounce the l, for what that’s worth.

  26. The Midwest has its own baseball tradition.

    Here’s Harry Caray at 0:50 – no L.

    This is Steve Stone and Hawk Harrelson for the White Sox, talking over each other in the first few seconds – but neither pronounce an L.

    I haven’t followed as much baseball in recent years, but I found the idea that the L was universal amazing. I don’t remember ever hearing the L. I’m sure I learned bawk from Jack Brickhouse, but that’s too ancient for his video to be common online.

  27. a pitcher will be presumed to be pitching from the Set Position if they stand with their pivot foot in contact with and parallel to the pitcher’s plate

    Seems like a perfectly normal example of indefinite “they” for a generic referent even when the referent must be male, the sort of thing that used to get Geoff Pullum excited at the turn of the century. But I searched on “a pitcher will be presumed to be pitching” and found that the result from, and most of the other hits, used “he”. I wonder if the writer was retyping the sentence (rather than copy-pasting) and unconsciously substituted the more natural form.

    “baulk” (disappointing that you didn’t mention the non-US spelling)

    Balk is also non-US: that is, baulk is disfavored in the US, while in the rest of the world, both are accepted, and are pretty much equal competitors in the Google ngram for British English; gives multiple examples of balk from the Times.

    I’m mystified as to how the -aulk spelling remained standard in baulk and caulk and not in any other -alk word — though OED s.v. walk says there’s a word waulk ‘To subject (woollen cloth) to the operation of beating or pressing … in order to cause felting of the fibres…’, which was originally the same word as walk.

    (Saving throw vs. digression onto mould|mold and other British “u” spellings: successful)

  28. David Marjanović says

    waulk ‘To subject (woollen cloth) to the operation of beating or pressing … in order to cause felting of the fibres…’

    German walken, which is also used for more generic repetitive kneading motions.

  29. The /k/ means that it is probably a loan from Low German or Dutch. Grimm has the expected Old High German walchan, Upper German dialectal walchen.

  30. David Marjanović says

    Hm. /k/ after consonants should not have become /x/, e.g. Wolke. Either there was a vowel that has uniformly disappeared, as in milk = Milch from *meluk and church = Kirche (OHG kirihha), or the OHG ch stands for the regular affricate – I don’t know whether to expect a fricative from High(est) Alemannic.

  31. Collins and Lexico* for BrE give priority to the L-ful pronunciation and the U-less spelling. I think this matches my usage. I and many BrE learnt the word in the late 70s — early 80s boom in televised snooker.

    *Lexico is OUP; has the OED entry been revised lately?

  32. “salve” and “solder” are other words where BrE has restored the /l/ and AmE not so much. Seems nobody drops the the /l/ of “soldier” any more.

  33. German walken, which is also used for more generic repetitive kneading motions.

    Proving that cats were first domesticated in Germany?

  34. Richard Hershberger says

    @Brett: Not really to the point, but I have argued that the historical purpose of the infield fly rule is not what everyone thinks, but to avoid making the umpire rule on whether or not the infielder caught the ball. Was that a catch (putting the batter out and breaking the force) and an irrelevant drop, or a muffed ball? There is a magical instant where it is a catch, but when is this? This is what we see in the NFL all the time. The delay while the officials review the video is not the most attractive feature of the game. For baseball, the infield fly rule makes the point moot. Also, it goes back about twenty years earlier than is usually realized, the language of the rule not being transparent. It solved the problem so well that people promptly forgot what the problem had been and made up other reasons.

    Here is an article I wrote on the subject: Or if you want to go all-in on the evolution of the rules, there is this:

    The balk is more straightforward. In premodern baseball the base paths usually were shorter than in the modern game. There was no need for a balk rule because the runner had a reasonable chance based simply on when it was no longer physically possible for the pitcher to stop his delivery. The balk rule was an adjustment to lengthening base paths, adding an artificial point in the delivery where the pitcher was committed, even though still physically able to stop. Of course no one really understood what is and is not a balk. There was constant tweaking of the rule, never entirely satisfactory.

    Which leads to me to walk-off balk that won the Orioles a game a few years back. Bottom of the ninth, tied score, runner at third. The pitcher was on the rubber when the ball slipped out of his hand and fell to the ground. This by rule is a balk. Presumably at some point in baseball history some clever pitcher came up with a clever scheme to trick a runner this way, so it was added to the rule. The Orioles were bemused, but a win is a win.

  35. David Marjanović says

    Seems nobody drops the the /l/ of “soldier” any more.

    …well, they do in Nigeria, but probably for different reasons.

  36. @Richard Hershberger: Thanks! That’s very interesting about the infield fly rule. I will have to read your article laying out the history.

  37. @DM re walken: In any case, the Upper German forms mentioned in Grimm (Alsatian, Austrian) are not Highest Alemannic. None of the OE or OHG forms seem to show a vowel between the /l/ and the /k/, but to really be sure one probably would have to check more in-depth dictionaries. I don’t know what’s going on here.

  38. For me to “balk” is the exact opposite of to “cave”. To cave is to do something because of increasing pressure, to balk is to refuse to do something you might have initially considered doing (despite your disinclination) because the pressure got unreasonably strong.

    In both cases you are disinclined to do it, but when you cave you estimate that the amount of pressure upon you is of an amount you have to go with and you do it, while when you balk you estimate that it has been too much and refuse.

  39. PlasticPaddy says

    in this version of ‘Salonika’ I am really not sure whether RD is saying sojur or soljur. In the Jimmy Crowley version I hear soljur.

  40. PlasticDaddy: I didn’t know Smashmouth player Chrono Trigger.

  41. @Hans: Speaking as a L2 English speaker, I’m also not sure about the roundness of /ɒ/ or /ɑ/, and even less about the dental /l/ (the only kind of /l/ possible in Bulgarian phonotactics in that environment, and it’s much easier to modify the vowel). Before /k/ it might even become a feature of the vowel.

  42. David Marjanović says

    I am really not sure

    I think it’s just barely there, but we can watch it disappear – like, if that man has children and they otherwise have the same accent, they definitely drop it.

    Somehow I’m reminded of the prelateralized stops encountered in a Tibetan variety of Ladakh (p. 138 onwards).

  43. I’m trying to identify that glyph: I have seen it, but I can’t quite place it. on p. 6. — Figure 16. — above the X on the keyboard placement.

  44. The footnote links to another PDF file:–morkrum-printing-telegraph.pdf , in which some things about including the superscript letters are sort-of-explained, but nothing about the mysterious glyph, which is only embedded as a visual in the original pdf. It has this postscript (linked at the fist page, lines edited by me):


    Document Notes
    This document was formatted (and edited to clarify the title block) by Gil Smith, July 2001. The
    figures are missing. The original file, krum&krum–morkrum-printing-telegraph.txt , courtesy of
    Jim Haynes, had this note at the top:

    “Jim: I thought that you might be interested in seeing this manuscript that I found at the Chicago
    Historical Society while researching my thesis. I think it may have been written by Howard and
    Charles Krum since their names were penciled on the front, but I can’t verify one way or the other.

    Tom Schumacher”


    So there’s that.

  45. @V: @Hans: Speaking as a L2 English speaker,…
    I’m confused – what do you refer to?

  46. I’m trying to identify that glyph

    What glyph are you referring to by “that”? (I mean in the text above; I can see the one on the typewriter keyboard, which is indeed intriguing.)

  47. The one on page six, figure sixteen. Hammond “universal” keyboard, the glyph above the X on the same key in the keyboard.

    EDIT: I used the word “that” there in an unorthodox way, didn’t I? I can see that.

  48. Hans: Speaking as someone whose second language is English (L2 English)?

  49. EDIT: I used the word “that” there in an unorthodox way, didn’t I? I can see that.

    Yes, that’s what confused me; had I been copyediting your comment, I would have changed it to something like “I’m trying to identify the glyph on p. 6 (Figure 16. — above the X on the keyboard placement): I have seen it, but I can’t quite place it.”

    Not a criticism — I’ve certainly made my share of incomprehensible comments! Just putting on my editor hat.

  50. I had no luck with drawing the symbol at

  51. Hans: Speaking as someone whose second language is English (L2 English)?
    Sorry, I understood what you said, but not why you were addressing me or what comment of mine you were referring to.

  52. The /k/ means that it is probably a loan from Low German or Dutch.

    No, /k/ would be the expected outcome here. We’d expect palatalization here no more than we would for drink, hang, or speak. The Middle English attestations pretty much rule this out as a Low German or Dutch loan, in any case.

  53. earthtopus says

    I pinged my keyboard friends and one of them found the per sign located at

    Circumstantially the case seems strong to me. The glyph in the paper is an embedded picture and not a character and as such might have been hand-drawn a little oddly itself. Also it seems like a common enough symbol for typewriter use.

  54. @languagehat

    Putting on my rarely used writer’s hat, if you were my editor I would almost balk at your combination of a colon and brackets. But I would cave, because a writer listens to their editor.

  55. V,

    Here is the 1917 guide to all the shuttles (character sets) the Hammond Typewriter company offered:

    The first several pages are QWERTY keyboard shuttles (if they use the Roman alphabet), but weirdly, the letters are presented by column, so that you only see QWERTY and recognize what’s up when you look at every third letter.

    Your character first shows up in the Medium Roman font they offered for Dutch (but not in the Dutch Clarendon). It’s also found in the 24A and 24C “Small Roman” fonts for English. 24, 24A, 24B and 24C are all Small Roman shuttles, and the character you’re asking about is one of only two that seem to distinguish these shuttles, the other being a double-shift of M giving a recognizable character which html seems to call the “section sign”. I can’t distinguish between 24 and 24B, nor between A and C. That may be due to the muddiness of the image.

    Your character also shows up in most of the German keyboard options.

    It does not show up in Polish, Servian, Chilian, any of the Swedish-Finnish fonts, Armenian, Irish Gaelic nor in Mathematical, which should help characterize who found it useful. The Yiddish-English shuttle offers Roman Capitals and Hebrew letters, with a double-shift for X (the key that in some cases gives the ‘cursive V’) producing lower-case x, presumably as a multiplication symbol, since there are no other lower-case letters. Shifting on the Yiddish Universal keyboard will give you what might be slightly larger versions of the same character you get without shifting. Perhaps that was standard in typed representation of Yiddish, but it looks odd to an eye trained to think most lower-case letters look different from their capitals.

    The Hammond “Ideal” style keyboard (a round keyboard) has a non-QWERTY layout of two rows. They don’t seem to offer your cursive V key in any of the Ideal shuttles, including “Medium Roman, Medical” and “Law Italic”. Naturally, Esperanto typists would want a weird keyboard, but sadly, they don’t seem to have used your cursive V, if that’s what it is.

    This may not get you much further, but it tells you that the character was deemed useful to normal speakers of West Germanic languages, particularly German itself (since it’s in the majority of the German “Universal” shuttles), but not to those using technical character sets, nor to those using other languages.

    If you can figure out what this cursive V is, and find a way to represent it in HTML, you should use it as your new name here, V.

  56. @Nelson Goering: I was talking about German walken, not about English walk. But even for the German verb spirantisation is not necessarily expected, as pointed out by DM. Still, Upper German dialect forms with -lch- exist, so there’s a bit of a puzzle.

  57. earthtopus says


    Is the case for the per-sign ⅌ not convincing to you? (in which case it’s presumably more of a cursive P than a cursive V)

  58. earthtopus,

    That seems reasonable. I dove so deeply in the Hammond keyboard rabbit hole that I hadn’t seen your post. Alas, unless V is willing to change their name to P…

  59. earthtopus says

    I appreciate the rabbithole dive – what a neat document you dug up! My favorite bit of Hammondiana I found was this page: which contains a newspaper clipping describing his employees’ jubilation when the eponymous founder was “declared sane”, in celebration of which they filled his office with flowers and “burn[ed] his enemies in effigy.”

  60. @Ryan that’s very thorough, but I’m mostly interested in the shift states, not the outline of the keys themselves.

  61. Ha!

    And who among us hasn’t wished at least one of our bosses would be cured of their insanity.


    I’m not sure what you mean by shift states.

    The link was to a page that shows the character (the glyph) that would be typed if you pressed shift and a key. It wasn’t about the keys themselves, but about what glyphs they triggered. (Technically, on a Hammond keyboard it looks like you pressed “Fig” rather than “Shift”.)

  62. ⅌ looks like it? I think that’s it. There was a lot of movement to include more mathematical symbols.

  63. Putting on my rarely used writer’s hat, if you were my editor I would almost balk at your combination of a colon and brackets.

    Yeah, that’s not really the best outcome — I was basically trying to eliminate the “that” problem. Were I actually editing your text, I would have worked more and produced a better finished product.

  64. Hans, ah — I didn’t realize your ‘it’ was referring back immediately to the David’s post about the German word.

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