Posted by: Jack Henry | May 24, 2022

Editor’s Corner: College Try

Good morning, everyone! A couple of weeks ago, one of you asked me where the phrase “Give it the old college try” came from. I thought this might be an easy one to look for, but there are several theories floating out there. It seems that it has been used, reused, misinterpreted, and misattributed. I trust the Grammarist, so let’s start there:

To give it the old college try means to put forth one’s very best effort, often to an outsized degree. Usually, but not always, give it the old college try refers to an attempt made to achieve something with a high risk of failure. The expression give it the old college try came not from the college campus, but from the baseball diamond.

At the turn of the century, a player was said to give it the old college try when attempting to make a play like a heroic attempt at catching a fly ball that was very far out of the player’s reach. Supposedly, the phrase referenced the enthusiasm of an amateur athlete playing for his college team.

The term give it the old college try was quoted in Babe Ruth’s book in the 1920s, and the phrase entered the American language to mean any heroic attempt to achieve something, especially something with a high risk of failure.

In Babe Ruth’s book, he defined the phrase as “playing to the grandstand or making strenuous effort to field a ball that obviously cannot be handled.” In the 1930s and 1940s, the phrase became associated with college football films, which were plentiful. The meaning changed with these films from “achiev(ing) something with a high risk of failure,” to achieving or winning “if you try, no matter what the odds.”

I can hear my sixth-grade basketball coach right now, “Okay girls, third quarter starts in a minute and we’re losing. Buck up and give it the old college try! And stop fouling yourselves out!” (Yeah, we only had seven girls there that day, and three of us fouled out in the first half. It’s hard to win with only four players.)

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her

Technical Editor, Advisory

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