On the ball

Common every day phrases often don’t make sense when you step back and consider their literal meaning.

For instance, why does the phrase “on the ball” mean to be on top of things?

I enjoy learning the etymology of common words or phrases but in some cases it’s taken me years to think about the literal meaning of a phrase. It never occurred to me that bullseye was the literal eye of a bull. Why you’d use it for target practice is a mystery, but you catch my drift. Another example is getting someone’s goat, which comes from horse racing. The phrase was originally literal but is now used in a non-literal sense.

Back to being on the ball. My theory was that it came from circus performers who perform acrobatics on top of a ball while rolling around, but that seemed a bit far fetched and silly.

The best explanation I found online was that it comes from sports. That wasn’t much help. It probably means you’re on the ball in the sense of covering it, like a basketball player guarding the player with the ball.

Still, that’s pretty vague and unsatisfying so I came up with with my own explanation. A baseball batter needs to keep their eye on the ball when hitting, and if you can hit the ball you’re considered alert and aware of things. Thus, to be on the ball means you’re alert and aware.

I admit, that’s pretty weak too.

Does anyone have a good explanation for the phrase?


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  1. I always thought it was from the planes landing on aircraft carriers. They had to line up with the ship and there was a ball that they watched to make sure they were in line and they had to be on the ball in order to land.

    Comment by Rick on April 23, 2008 @ 8:44 am
  2. Ah, now that you mention it I think I’ve heard that explanation before. I wonder if that’s the true origin.

    Comment by Dan on April 23, 2008 @ 10:15 pm
  3. The aircraft carrier reference was the first that came to my mind too, once I actually started to think about it!


    Comment by Light & Dark on April 25, 2008 @ 12:12 pm
  4. Have you found the etymology for “grabbing the (funny) bull by the horns” ;)

    Comment by Levi on April 29, 2008 @ 12:25 pm
  5. Good one. That will remain a mystery forever. ;)

    Comment by Dan on April 30, 2008 @ 3:20 pm

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