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What Does "Drop the Ball" Mean?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 23, 2024
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"To drop the ball" is an idiomatic expression in American English. Someone who "drops the ball" has made a stupid mistake, often one that lets others down. The expression usually carries the implication that the person being described has made a mistake through carelessness, inattention or incompetence.

The origins of this expression come from sports, although exactly which sport is unclear. There are several sports in which dropping a ball that's in play can cause negative consequences for a player's team. In baseball, for example, a fielder who drops a ball will be unable to throw it back quickly enough to catch a runner out. Similarly, in football, dropping the ball makes it possible for the opposing team to take possession. Both of these situations lend themselves to the analogy in the expression "drop the ball," that one player's careless error has created difficulties for the entire team.

This phrase entered colloquial American English in the mid-20th century. By the 1940s, it was a common expression indicating a careless error. During this period, a secondary sense developed, in which "to drop the ball" meant not only to make an error but specifically to miss some kind of opportunity. It appears to be rarer in British English, which might tend to support the theory that it originated in either baseball or football. The phrase's connotation of missing an opportunity suggests that the expression refers to a player jumping to make a catch, rather than a ball carrier in football, who holds the ball for a longer period.

Like other such expressions, "drop the ball" can occur equally in accusations and apologies. A teammate or superior might accuse someone of "dropping the ball" and letting others down. Similarly, it is not uncommon to hear a person who has made a mistake acknowledge it by saying "I really dropped the ball on this one."

One alternative use of "drop the ball" is connected to New Year's Eve. In New York City, the new year is marked by a lit ball which descends down a mast atop One Times Square, counting down the last few seconds of the year. This ball is sometimes said to be dropped, but the two expressions are not otherwise related. Similarly, the British English expression "to balls something up" has a similar meaning, being used to describe someone who makes a mistake, but relies on an alternative meaning of "ball."

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Discussion Comments
By kentuckycat — On Mar 07, 2012

@Izzy78 - That is a very interesting story and I agree about the variety of uses for the term. It is a very subjective term that can be used bases upon the situation at hand and is pretty loose as far as what can be determined as dropping the ball.

I really would like to see more stories or other instances in which someone has been described as dropping the ball, in which they did not necessarily do something stupid or make a mistake.

I feel like that it is too black and white to say that someone who dropped the ball is someone who just made a stupid mistake as I run into way too many different uses for the term.

By Izzy78 — On Mar 06, 2012

@titans62 - I completely agree with you. I have experienced numerous instances in which I was told to have dropped the ball, but I have merely pointed out a fault in something in a reasonable way. Many of these times I was right and was told later that it really was a bad idea to do what the people did.

To me the dropping the ball saying is subjective to whoever is saying it and that its usage as far as ruining the mood is something that depends on the situation.

I was once asked when I was younger if I wanted to go with people to egg a teacher's house, and my friends set up this big plan to do it. I originally acted like I would go along with it, with intentions of trying to convince them not to do it. However, once my intentions were revealed I was told to have dropped the ball on the situation and they went without me.

Sure enough my friends were caught and were forced by the police to clean up the mess they made. I may have dropped the ball on them, but I did it in a reasonable way while the group majority mentality was that they wanted to act unreasonable and judge me based upon whether or not I went with them.

By titans62 — On Mar 06, 2012

@matthewc23 - I have heard that too and have always felt that it was something that could be used in several different situations in which the person has done something negative.

It is something that can be used to describe a variety of situations in which someone has done something to wrong the rest of the group or even just screwed something up or even in the instance like you said where it just ruins the mood.

I find that this article may define the term as how it is defined in the dictionary, but there are a variety of ways in which this term can be used in everyday life that it does not necessarily mean that someone has to make a stupid mistake.

I have heard of people being told to dropping the ball on people by simply pointing something out as being a bad idea, when in fact they are being reasonable with their questioning.

By matthewc23 — On Mar 05, 2012

I have always thought that the term "drop the ball" did not necessarily mean that someone made a stupid mistake.

I have heard plenty of people say that someone has dropped the ball when that particular person points out a fault with something that ruins the mood or ruins a good time.

I have always figured that someone dropping the ball was simply a euphemism that went along the same lines as someone who is either a "Debbie downer" or a "Johnny rain on" or in other words people that really ruin the current mood for everyone involved.

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