Q From Mike Page in the UK: I was struck by the phrase to queer the pitch as I used it the other day. What game? How did one queer the pitch?
A This is mainly a British expression, so I should explain that when you queer someone’s pitch you spoil their chances of success, usually deliberately. It came originally from the argot of nineteenth-century market and street traders.
The word pitch here is closely related to the other British sense you give of an area of ground marked out for some sporting purpose, such as a cricket pitch or football pitch. But it’s a different meaning of the word. It was the name given — then as now — to a position in a street market or the like where a trader set his barrow or stall. And for at least three hundred years queer had been a slang term for anything wrong, nasty, bad or worthless. (It’s thought this usage was the source of the sense of queer for homosexual, which, however, doesn’t appear until the second decade of the twentieth century.) It’s surely closely connected with the standard English queer for anything strange, odd, peculiar or eccentric, but exactly how we’re unsure. The verb is first recorded from 1812, but is probably rather older.
Putting them together, we have to queer one’s pitch, which originally meant to do something to spoil the success of a market or street trader. Perhaps a nearby rival shouted louder or had better patter, or an officious policeman ‘interfered’ with trade by moving on an illegal trader.
Later in the century, it was taken over by theatrical people, who used it in much the same way as they did upstage, to refer to an actor doing something that stole the scene from others. Here’s an example from some stage reminiscences of 1866: “The smoke and fumes of ‘blue fire’ which had been used to illuminate the fight came up through the chinks of the stage, fit to choke a dozen Macbeths, and — pardon the little bit of professional slang — poor Jamie’s ‘pitch’ was ‘queered’ with a vengeance”.