February 18, 2006


Near the end of Maureen Dowd's 2/18/2006 column "Hunting for a Straight Shooter":

Our message is supposed to work because it has moral force, not because we pay some Lincoln Group sketchballs millions to plant propaganda in Iraqi newspapers and not because the press here plays down revelations of American torture. [emphasis added]

Though I don't think that you'll find the term sketchball in any dictionary on your shelf, it's not MD's invention.

Sketchballs has 683 Google hits, in contexts like an April 2005 Interview article that describes Jennifer Alba as "the ball of fire who has seduced, outfoxed, and overpowered a litany of criminals, creeps, and sketchballs on her way to becoming the new face of Hollywood heroines", or a November 2005 piece in the Auburn student paper headlined "The Survivor's Guide to Sketchballs". And the singular sketchball has 865 more, including this meta-commentary on the term's transparency:

Its funny, when you switch firms, all of the sudden, everyone starts picking up on terms that you've been using for years and you realize you've come up with your own lingo or borrowed some from others and made it your own. I called someone a "sketchball" the other day and Fred was all over it. However, the term "sketchball" itself isn't that interesting to me, so I'm not going to make it a Charlieism. I think if I call someone a sketchball, you'll know what it means.

[You can also find a number of sketchball-related contributions over at the Urban Dictionary.]

The first part of sketchball is from sketchy, which has recently (?) taken over from sleazy as the favored slang expression for "untrustworthy", "shady", "of questionable character" (though some people seem to use it to mean nothing more than "deprecated" or "unpopular"). The -ball part is older. Quoting from J.E. Lighter in The Atlantic of June 1998, "Eyes on the ball":

As the essayist and novelist Nicholson Baker has noted, the suffix -ball has become an important resource for the slangy smart-alecks of our time. Think of the belittling butterball, cheeseball, cornball, dirtball, goofball, hairball, nutball, oddball, sleazeball, slimeball, and weirdball. Most of these arrived well after mid-century, and in most the -ball element is only a metaphor. The spiritual progenitor of this burgeoning array of ball-bearing compounds, though, is undoubtedly a real ball -- the familiar screwball, first noted in print in 1928. Originally this designated the deceptive baseball pitch that breaks in a direction opposite to that of an ordinary curve ball. The screwball (similar to the earlier fadeaway) gained its nom de guerre largely through the efforts of Carl Hubbell, the left-handed Hall of Fame ace who pitched for the New York Giants from 1928 to 1943. The winner of twenty-four consecutive games stretching over the 1936 and 1937 seasons, Hubbell perfected his signature screwball in the minors; he remembered having a catcher in Oklahoma tell him the pitch was "the screwiest thing [he] ever saw." Shortly thereafter the descriptive screwball was bestowed on human beings -- people who display an unpredictable twist. The linguistic leap was made easy by the prior existence of screwy, which had the same connotation. Screwy derives from the nineteenth-century expression "having a screw loose"-- that is, "having something missing or defective," as in machinery ("There's a screw loose somewhere ...").

Lighter also mentions scuzzball, which was the occasion of his column.

Most of the cited examples involve adding -ball to a two-syllable adjective ending in -y, but with the -y removed: corny, dirty, goofy, nutty, sleazey, slimey, scuzzy, sketchy. There are a few where the base seems to be a monosyllabic adjective: odd, weird. There are some cases where it's not entirely clear what the base is: are hairball, cheeseball and nutball from hairy, cheesey and nutty, or are they influenced by the independently derived hairball (the ball of hair that a cat spits up), cheeseball (a ball made of cheese), etc. Jerkball is pretty common (more than 4,000 Google hits) but the adjective jerky is much less prominent than the noun jerk.

The XyXball transformation is not foolproof, though: silly doesn't yield *sillball, presumably because sill is not a morpheme here. And in general polysyllabic insults don't take -ball. You could use the made-up word idiotball to describe a particular approach to the strategy or tactics of baseball -- along the lines of Michael Lewis' neologism moneyball -- and in fact Google will tell us that on 6/25/2004, in the Sox vs. Cubs Game Day Thread on whitesoxinteractive.com, HomeFish did so:

Garland gives up the run. Idiotball at its finest.

But it seems totally implausible to refer to someone as an idiotball -- or a bastardball or an a**holeball either. In contrast, polysyllabic nouns for nasty substances seem plausible as a base. Thus mucousball ought to work, it seems to me, even though it's not to be found in Google's index. Corpus linguistics still has some limitations, I guess.

[A note of the subject matter of MD's column. The Lincoln Group, which self-identifies as "a strategic commnications and public relations firm providing insight & influence in challenging & hostile environments", has a plausible claim to sketchballosity. It was flagged around Thanksgiving by the LA Times for "secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops in an effort to burnish the image of the U.S. mission in Iraq". And back around Memorial Day, Billmon at Whiskey Bar was already muttering darkly about the Lincoln Group in the context of remarks about the spoils system, political "oppo" research, "propaganda and disinformation", and so on.

On the other hand, psychological warfare has a long history, much of which would probably be viewed positively by the same people who were scandalized by the idea of planting stories in the Iraqi press. For example, Ralph Ingersoll, who helped Harold Ross set up the New Yorker, and founded the leftwing newspaper PM, worked in on psychological warfare operations for the U.S. Army in WW II.]

[Update: Mark Jason Dominus writes

Bonnie Webber of the Penn CIS department used to have a clipping on the door of her office that tabulated which combinations were permissible, something like this:

                -ball   -wad    -bag    -head   -bucket

        Screw-    X                        X

        Cheese-   X              X        (1)
        Scuzz-    X              X                  X

        Scum-     X      X       X                  X

        Slime-    X                                 X

        Douche-          X       X

I don't remember which prefixes and suffixes were actually tabulated, though.

I'll ask Bonnie (who is now at Edinburgh) if she remembers, or if she has a more up-to-date version. Certainly this appears to be a much-needed gap in the literature on English derivational morphology.]

[Update #2: Claire, commenting at Languagehat's site, observes that the Australian equivalent of "sketchy" is "dodgy", whereas "dodgeball" is (she thinks, and I agree) not a likely neologism -- due to blocking by a prior coinage, I guess, as well as dialect incompatibility.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 18, 2006 01:12 PM