A screw is a cylinder with a point on the end and a spiral thread around it. A ball is a sphere, not really amenable to screwing into things. Is that why something that’s odd or quirky is sometimes called screwball?
Nope. (Also, no, a screwball is not a fancy-dress dance that devolves to frank sexual encounters.) In cricket parlance, spin on a ball – what snooker players might call English – is screw, because it screws through the air. The bowler has put a twist on it. So, originally, a ball thrown with a pronounced twist could be called a screwball. But the sense has narrowed somewhat – and shifted mainly to baseball. Now it refers not to any spin (a curveball also has spin, in the other direction) but to a counter-spin, which causes the ball to behave in a way not quite anticipated by the batter… it’s kinda screwy. (And no, screwy doesn’t come from screwball; actually, it predates it by a few decades.)
Want a demonstration of how this works in baseball? Here:
Does that look awkward, maybe hard on the arm? Many pitchers believe so, and so don’t throw it. But it’s not actually true. Read about both facts in a recent New York Times article, “The Mystery of the Vanishing Screwball.”
So if few pitchers throw screwballs anymore, why care so much? Does the word seem familiar? Do you associate it with baseball? Or do you associate it with comedy? Movies, perhaps? Classic screwball comedies of the 1930s? Yeeeesssss. Actually, most uses of screwball now refer to a genre of romantic farcical comedy that involves eccentric characters, social inversion (including class conflict and – o shock! – dominant females), and lots of rapid witty banter and sexual tension. Classic examples include Some Like It Hot, It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, You Can’t Take It With You, and His Girl Friday.
Why are these called screwball comedies? Well, they’re wonky and unexpected and involve odd and nutty situations – a crazy person can also be called a screwball, no doubt under the influence of screwy as well as the oddness of the screwball pitch. But also, they’re sex comedies without explicit sex; they’re loaded with carefully crafted innuendo. Scruples turn into screwballs. A word seeming to be a sporting reference but made of two words that are also slang words for sexual things is a pretty apt choice.
Screwball comedies are, strictly speaking, a thing of the past now – although there are certainly modern movies that have inherited aspects of the genre. So again, if no one is making screwball comedies and almost no one is pitching screwballs, why does the word have any currency?
Probably because it’s fun to say, with its throwing-and-catching motion of the mouth: starting with the /skr/ you scrimp and scrunch your lips, then push them full forward with the /u/, and then you bounce them off the /b/ and pull them back and open them for the /ɑl/. Hmm, pitching and catching – or blowing a kiss and then taking it back? It has a playful hidden lewdness to it (as mentioned) too. This word is like a toy you happen to notice when looking through a dusty old drawer, and you can’t help taking it out and playing with it. Don’t worry… you won’t get hurt.
Thanks to John Rorke for suggesting screwball.