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Words, June 3

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"Ronald Reagan spent twenty-five years on the lecture circuit, honing his toastmaster's chops to such burnished perfection that any kid in the 1980s could imitate his amiable head tilts and the soothing susurrus that bathed his every line."

Susurrus is onomatopoeic; the word sounds like the thing it refers to – "a soft murmuring or rustling sound, a whisper."

Hi ("Pop") Fligh writes:

"Why do we say someone or something peculiar is out of left field or out in left field? How did left field come to be home of the strange?"

Good question, Pop (if I may address you informally). I've wondered myself. Some say it has to do with left field's remoteness from the heart of the game, but right field is just as remote, and in the lower levels of baseball, more likely to be occupied by an athletic misfit. I can vouch for the truth of a column by Ron Fimrite in the San Francisco Chronicle (quoted in Paul Dickson's New Baseball Dictionary):

"There was but one position to which the clods, the kids with glasses, the little guys, the sissies, the ones that got good grades, the kids who played with girls, were exiled. That would be right field, the Siberia of my youth. Right field was the back of the bus, the slow-learners class, the children's department, a sideshow . . . Anyone directed to play right field would have given anything to 'be out in left field.' "

There's no sure answer to Mr. Fligh's question, further proof of the adage "Questions are easy. Answers are hard." Dickson cites a couple of theories: (1) "The phrase was an insult heaped on kids who were stupid enough to buy left-field seats in Yankee Stadium, which for many years would have put them far away from a right fielder named Babe Ruth," and (2) "The phrase was a specific reference to the fact that there was a mental hospital, the Neuropsychiatric Institute, in back of left field in the old West Side Park in Chicago."

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