I was as surprised as Language Hat (Stephen Dodson) to learn that balk may be acquiring a new meaning that’s pretty much the opposite of the traditional one. (I was not surprised, as he was, that the “l” in balk is silent; I’ve always pronounced the word that way on the very few occasions I’ve used it.)
It turns out there’s a lot about balk that’s interesting. For one thing, it’s spelled baulk in the UK. This was news to me, but not completely surprising, because after all the Brits colorfully and flavorfully insert a u in the center of a lot of words.
The widely accepted definition of the verb to balk is “to hesitate” or “to be unwilling to do something.” You usually balk at something, like a high price or an unreasonable demand. The OED gives a bunch of other senses as well, some of them obsolete: to shun, to pass over, to miss by error or inadvertence. My favorite: “To signify to fishing-boats the direction taken by the shoals of herrings or pilchards, as seen from heights overlooking the sea; done at first by bawling or shouting, subsequently by signals.” Since 1845 or so, balk has also been used in baseball to mean “to make an illegal motion, penalized by an advance of the base runners,” or as a noun signifying the illegal or deceptive motion.
All of those senses except the fishing-boat one come from an Old English word, balca, that meant “a ridge on the land.” Such a ridge was an obstruction, which gave rise to the figurative senses. (The fishing-boat sense comes from a Dutch word, balk-en, that means what its English cognate means: “to bawl.”)
The new sense that Language Hat observed is something like “to cave” or “to give in,” and it’s intransitive. The example he cites is from a July 2021 article in The Atlantic online headlined “Why Managers Fear a Remote Workplace”:
In 2019, Steven Spielberg called for a ban on Oscar eligibility for streaming films, claiming that “movie theaters need to be around forever” and that audiences had to be given “the motion picture theatrical experience” for a movie to be a movie. … Ultimately, Spielberg balked, and last month his company even signed a deal with Netflix.
Here’s one I found, from a December 3 article in Primetimer about the supporting characters in HBO’s “Succession”:
[I]n a telling moment, when asked directly if she was prepared to make a decision that would drastically alter her professional life, Karolina did what most of the characters on Succession do: she balked and chose the comforting familiarity of the devil she knew.
“Balked” here doesn’t mean “hesitated,” it means “gave in.”
Words change meaning over time, of course. “Silly” used to mean meant “happy”; a “girl” was once a young person of either sex. Could balk be sliding toward a new non-baseball sense? Comments on the Language Hat post suggest that it’s not a completely farfetched idea:
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.
- I… I thought that’s what this word meant.
Thinking about balk got me thinking about Balkan, the word used to describe a large region of southeastern Europe. (Or formerly used: the word is discouraged now because of the unsavory sense of Balkanization.) Could balk and Balkan be connected? Probably not, the OED tells us. The geographical term may come from Turkish balkan, which means “a wooded mountain or mountain range (further etymology uncertain.” It does seem interesting that Old English balca and Turkish balkan both refer to topography, but the languages of the world are full of apparent connections that turn out to be fanciful.