Zimmer on Balk.

Now that the baseball season is drawing to the close (and my Mets are still not only in the chase but on top of their division, if only by a game), it’s a particularly good time for Ben Zimmer to write a WSJ piece about the word balk:

Major League Baseball has announced rule changes for the 2023 season intended to speed up the pace of play in a sport where games can seem to stretch on interminably. One new rule introduces a timer to limit how long pitchers take on the mound between their pitches.

As part of the pitch-clock rule, MLB has decreed that if a runner is on base, the pitcher is allowed to throw to the base or step off the rubber twice per plate appearance. If the pitcher attempts to pick off a runner a third time and doesn’t get the runner out, that will be called a balk, and all runners get to advance a base.

Confusing enough? The word “balk” was already one of the most perplexing in baseball. In use since the earliest formulations of the game’s rules, “balk” serves as a cover term for various illegal acts or motions by a pitcher, ostensibly made with the goal of deceiving the hitter or runner. But as baseball historian Richard Hershberger observed in his 2019 book “Strike Four: The Evolution of Baseball,” “confusion about balks has been a constant through baseball history.” (That confusion extends to the word’s pronunciation: it is generally pronounced “bawk” with a silent “l.”)

The word originally comes from “balca,” a Germanic term that could refer to a ridge of land or a beam on a house. (The same Germanic root made its way into Italian as “balco” for a scaffold, which was suffixed as “balcone,” the source of the English word “balcony.”)

As the word passed into Middle English, it could be spelled “balk” or “baulk” (with “baulk” remaining a common spelling in Great Britain). Farmers used “balk” for a ridge of land left accidentally unploughed, which gave rise to a more metaphorical meaning of a slip or blunder. It could also refer to a ridge that one might stumble over, or more generally any sort of obstruction.

The notion of a “balk” as a hindrance also led to the word’s use as a verb meaning “to stop short,” as when a horse, rather than jumping over an obstacle, turns away from it. From there, “balk” could refer to hesitating or abruptly refusing to do something, as in the line from Daniel Defoe’s “Moll Flanders,” “If he baulked, I knew I was undone.”

Before being used in baseball, “balk” entered the parlance of billiards in the early 19th century, with the “balkline” marking the area on the table where the cue ball must be placed for an opening shot.

Baseball wasn’t far behind: The “Knickerbocker Rules” of 1845, the sport’s first such formal document, noted that “a runner cannot be put out in making one base, when a balk is made on the pitcher.” Mr. Hershberger notes that a “balk” rule could have carried over from even earlier forms of baseball. […]

What exactly constituted a “balk” would be left to baseball’s rule makers over the years. An 1857 article in the New York Herald about a new set of rules complained that it was “rather indefinite in endeavoring to define a baulk.” The meaning continued to shift even after the National League tried to pin it down in its 1898 rulebook.

Now in the pitch-clock era, the definition is set to evolve yet again—even if unhappy players balk at the change.

We discussed the pronunciation and a non-baseball meaning of the word last year and the pronunciation of balcony a decade ago. (For the record, although I am delighted they’re trying to cut down on the length of games and think the pitch clock is a good idea, I strongly deprecate the new balk rule. I know crowds hate it when the pitcher keeps throwing over to first base, but you gotta try to keep the runner from stealing, and that’s the only weapon the poor pitcher has.)


  1. intended to speed up the pace of play

    Drama at the Bledisloe (rugby) Cup Thursday night (Melbourne, Australia time)!

    There’s a similar rule in rugby that a place-kick must be made within reasonable time after the penalty is awarded.

    Australia were ahead by 3 points (that is, one scoring opportunity); with less than two minutes to full time. Australia were awarded a place-kick; so of course were aiming to run down the clock. (It was close to their own goal-line, so no hope of scoring from it.) The referee warned the kicker three times, then blew the whistle: he’d taken too long.

    New Zealand took the opportunity; then scored a try (5 points) with the clock now run out.

    The interwebs went ballistic — with the referee being blamed as over-intrusive throughout the match.

  2. So, to rhyme with talk, walk, chalk and stalk, just as you’d expect.

  3. Sure, but for some reason lots of people (like me until I learned the standard pronunciation) pronounce the -l-.

  4. That is to say, as far as the consonants are concerned: tock, wok, chock and stock.

    We’re chock full of woks, all models are in stock.

  5. Very interesting. I’d completely forgotten about the balkline in billiards, having not played the game in many years, and would have been hard-pressed to explain any connection to the baseball sense.

    Also, for those of us of a British persuasion, talk and tock have different vowels.

  6. They do for me as well; it’s not a standard American merger.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    for those of us of a British persuasion, talk and tock have different vowels

    Not those of a North British persuasion, though.


  8. It’s not a universal merger, but it is common and it is expanding its range both geographically and chronologically. In a few generations LOT=CLOTH=THOUGHT=PALM may well be universal in North America. Indeed, I saw a sociolinguist post on Quora that unmerged accents are non-standard; I naturally gave him what for. Note that CLOTH is basically the set of words that in some accents detached from LOT and merged with THOUGHT instead, so it never represents a distinct phoneme. (For me it’s LOT=PALM and separately THOUGHT=CLOTH.)

  9. All the chickens I know have the BALK=BAWK merger.

  10. In Korean we call it 보크 bokeu, treating the l as silent. What it means has always been a mystery to me, I confess.

  11. I’m trying to imagine how my Derbyshire relatives would say talk and tock, and I think there would be a difference, although less than in my version of English.

  12. I used to think that balk in baseball was a made up term, a variation of “walk”. I never, till this post, associated it with the word /bɔk/ in other uses, which, for whatever reason, feels familiar as a spoken word, but not as a written word. The baseball term, unlike other uses, I would have seen and heard simultaneously thanks to TV broadcasts putting the word in the screen when it’s used.

    Regarding the vowels of talk and tock, those are the same as those of caught and cot, which means it is actually a pretty common American merger, just not (yet) universal. And not one I have. (Ah, I see this has been covered in comments made between when I pulled up the page and when I finished writing my comment. I’ll leave this part anyway.)

  13. Richard Hershberger says

    @Terry K: The non-baseball example I use for “balk” is an equestrian preparing to jump a fence until the horse at the last minute reconsiders the wisdom and balks. This was the sense that led to baseball adopting the rule. It is, in the baseball context much older than “walk.” The base on balls rule dates only to 1864. Calling a base on balls a “walk” is even later, an informal to boot.

  14. The spelling-pronunciation /l/ in “balk” is perhaps akin to the parallel one some speakers (including myself, on occasion) have in “caulk,” which rhymes, at least in my idiolect. I would say that talk/walk/chalk/stalk are (depending on exact circumstances of upbringing of course) lexemes one is more likely to have acquired before learning to read, which gives them greater protection against spelling pronunciations.

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