pitched battle

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pitched battle

Post by Ken Greenwald » Thu Feb 14, 2013 5:13 am

<2013 “The Taliban insurgency never won a single, pitched battle with NATO forces.”—The Chronicle Herald (Halifax, Nova Scotia), 11 February>
I tried to take a guess what the ‘pitched’ in ‘pitched battle,’ might mean, but I couldn’t think of a thing.

PITCHED BATTLE: 1) (military) A large fight, or a battle in which both sides remain at fixed locations; a battle which has been planned, and of which the ground has been chosen beforehand, by both sides. 2) A fiercely waged battle or struggle of any kind between opposing forces; and angry fight or argument; an intense conflict. [[I don’t visualize #1 being applicable in modern times.]]

Note: In the military sense a ‘pitched battle’ is not a ‘running battle’ where the sides are constantly changing location. And it is not a chance encounter such as a hasty ‘skirmish.’

(Oxford English Dictionary, Wikipedia, Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus, Cambridge Idioms Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms)


A PITCHED BATTLE: A fierce fight. Literally, a pitched battle is one fought on a predetermined ground (the pitch) as opposed to either a casual skirmish or a running battle.

[[The problem I find here is that the only meaning of ‘pitch’ that makes any sense at all is “an area of play in any other field game ((besides cricket)); the field, the ground.” This meaning, however, first appeared in print in 1895 – much too late (see quotes below) to have been used in the origin of ‘pitched battle.’]]


A PITCHED BATTLE: An intense fight. Originally a pitched battle meant a battle that had been planned beforehand, with the ground “pitched on,” that is, chosen, and opposing sides lined up in orderly fashion. The term was used to contrast it with a skirmish or chance encounter, and dates from about 1600. In time, however, it came to be used more loosely for any intense fight in which combatants are fiercely engaged.

[[“Pitched on” = chosen??? I wonder how they came up with this conclusion. None of the dictionaries I checked (OED, Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, . . . showed any relationship between ‘pitched’ and ‘chosen.’ However, I did find one definition of the verb ‘pitch’ that did make some sense. PITCH: “To put in a fixed or definite place or position; to situate, to place.” The opposing sides put their armies into position (seems to work).


PITCHED BATTLE: Pitched battles were first carefully planned, even gentlemanly, battles where the battleground was chosen beforehand and tents were pitched near it by the opposing armies at least several days before any fighting took place, they were called such as early as 1549, in contrast to skirmishes or chance encounters, but the term for a planned battle, where complete preparations have been made, came to mean a battle in which the opposing forces are completely and intensely engaged, this latter meaning more common today.

[[I don’t like the smell of ‘pitched’ in “pitched battle” coming from “pitched tents.” In any case the ‘pitch’ in ‘pitched tents’ means to fix and erect (a tent, pavilion, etc.) for the purpose of encampment.]]

I’m not thrilled with any of the above etymologies and I think they might have been better off saying “origin uncertain and then offering their guesses.

The following quotes are from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources:
<circa 1616 “Have I not in a pitched battle heard loud 'larums, neighing steeds, and trumpets' clang?”—Taming of the Shrew (1623) by Shakespeare, Act i. Scene ii>

<1729 “Tis wrote from Tetuan, that the Natives and the Blacks had come to a pitched Battle, and that the Blacks were beaten Dublin Gazette (Ireland), 18 November, >

<1851 “The reappearance, on Friday, of the remnant of the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill was the signal for a pitched battle which has raged ever since, and-will probably outlast a night or two more.”—Guardian (London), 19 March, page 13>

<1942 “He explained that by ‘battle’ he did not mean the British had stopped withdrawing and were fighting a pitched battle.”—Oakland Tribune (California), 15 January, page 2>

<1975 “A pitched battle in the North Chicago suburbs was easily the nation's costliest congressional race.”—Press-Telegram (Long Beach, California), 11 April, page 11>

<1990 “After months of anticipation and strategizing, abortion foes and abortion-rights advocates fought the first pitched battle today to win the hearts, minds and votes of Maryland lawmakers Washington Post (D. C.), 16 January>

<2001 “The Giants Colin Ward and London's Mikael Tjaliden decided to keep warm, by having a pitched battle on the ice, before being sent to the box to calm down.”—The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), 1 January>

<2007 “‘When you have a pitched battle going on in a city full of civilians, that is not in accordance with the Geneva Conventions,’ he said.”—AP Online, 12 May>

<2013 “Individuals on both sides of the row denied that it amounted to a pitched battle between long-term residents and more recent arrivals over house prices, . . .”—The Independent (London), 3 January>

Ken G – February 13, 2013

Re: pitched battle

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu Feb 14, 2013 7:26 am

Etymologist Michael Quinion has this to say about the origin of pitch:
The oldest sense of pitch that’s immediately relevant [to the question, Why do British speakers call a playing field a 'pitch'? -- EK] is that of thrusting a stake or pole into the ground (which is why we talk about pitching a tent). The sense of a playing field comes via that, originally from cricket. The act of setting up the playing area by knocking the two sets of stumps into the ground was called pitching the stumps from the end of the seventeenth century on. However, it wasn’t until the 1870s that the term was turned into a noun to describe the playing area and it was extended to football only about 1900 — surprisingly late in both cases.

Incidentally, an associated idea is that of a place from which one sells things, such as a site in a market or fairground in which a trader sets up (or pitches) his tent or stall, and by extension any spot on which an itinerant trader temporarily places himself. The sense of a salesman’s presentation, a sales pitch, derives from the shouted cries of these traders from their pitches.
And, before anybody asks, all the other senses of the noun and verb — apart from that for the black tarry stuff — seem to be connected, but nobody is quite sure how.
It seems plausible that the evolution of pitched battle could have followed a similar route to that of cricket pitch:

Driving of a stake into the ground > erection of tents > the field of battle (by virtue of its proximity to, or association with, the soldiers' tents).

From this, it would be only a small step to a 'pitched battle'.

So far, this is purely speculation. But any solid evidence that a field of battle was also referred to as a pitch would be fairly conclusive, especially if it predated the year 1549 referred to in the entry from The Facts on File Encyclopedia. (It would also be reassuring to know what evidence the compilers of the latter were relying on in connection with this date.)

However, like you, Ken, I was unable to find any corroboration for the word being used in the sense of 'battlefield' in any of the dictionaries I consulted, so my hypothesis appears to lack any evidential basis besides the bald assertion advanced in the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms.

Meanwhile, I found a possible clue in part of another explanation by Michael Quinion, this one concerning the origin of piggyback:
It started out in the sixteenth century as pick pack, carrying something on the back or shoulders. Pick is a medieval version of pitch, so it meant a load that was pitched on to a person’s back for carrying. A little later, pickpack meant a ride on somebody’s shoulders.
Now, it seems possible to me that since pick and pitch both existed in medieval times, and overlapped somewhat in meaning, there may have been some confusion in the minds of the people of that time as to whether a pitched battle was so called because of its association with the tents of soldiers, or because the venue had been chosen beforehand by the combatants; or perhaps both senses (picked in the sense of 'chosen', and pitched as associated with tents) were active in many people's use and understanding of the term.

For this hypothesis too, some solid evidence is needed. The online Merriam-Webster has, for one of the transitive senses of the verb pick, this definition and derivation:
Definition of PICK

1 chiefly dialect : to throw or thrust with effort : hurl
2 : to throw (a shuttle) across the loom

Origin of PICK

Middle English pykken to pitch (a tent); akin to Middle English picchen to pitch

First Known Use: 1523
Merriam-Webster gives the origin of the other (numerous) transitive senses of pick as follows:
Origin of PICK

Middle English piken, partly from Old English *pīcian (akin to Middle Dutch picken to prick); partly from Middle French piquer to prick — more at pike

First Known Use: 14th century
In the absence of any direct evidence regarding the mental connections the people of medieval Britain were making when they spoke of a 'pitched battle', the inferences I have made represent only what I think is the most likely evolution of the expression. But direct evidence would quite likely be hard to find such a long time after the term came into being.
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Re: pitched battle

Post by Bobinwales » Thu Feb 14, 2013 12:13 pm

I don't know whether the usage is English or Wenglish, but around here to throw something over a hedge/fence etc. is to pitch it.

I will check it later.
Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

Re: pitched battle

Post by trolley » Thu Feb 14, 2013 4:39 pm

Interesting stuff. I never made the connection between a pitched battle and the field it was fought on. The use of "pitch " for a playing field is not all that common here (at least, not anymore). I only ever hear that meaning in reference to football (and only when football means soccer). For me, "pitched battle" always conjured up thoughts of waves and frequency, like a pitching sea...up and down, back and forth, to and fro. The idea of pitch, meaning throw, is usually the first thing that comes to mind when I hear pitch. To pitch a tent was to throw it up (erect it), To pitch an idea was to toss it to someone. A pitch fork was for throwing hay. My doctor is the pitcher of health...ok, maybe not.

Re: pitched battle

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Feb 15, 2013 8:14 am

Bobinwales wrote:I don't know whether the usage is English or Wenglish, but around here to throw something over a hedge/fence etc. is to pitch it.
Surely no Welshman could behave in so ill-bred a manner.

Re: pitched battle

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Fri Feb 15, 2013 4:39 pm

In the village cricket match, to bowl something over a hedge/fence etc is to overpitch it.

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