Q From Julane Marx, California: Some of us in the US who have been exposed to the Harry Potter phenomenon wonder why a playing field is called a pitch in England, as in Quidditch pitch? Was it once made of pitch, or is it generally pitched at an angle, or what? I wouldn’t think of slope as a desirable feature in a playing field, but I guess it depends on what you’re playing.
A Sloping pitches are a traditional joke in the amateur football game, and even at times in the professional one, which is one reason why high-powered executive types talk about the need for a level playing field. But that’s not why they’re called pitches.
The oldest sense of pitch that’s immediately relevant 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.