What Does Bush League Mean?

Maybe you’ve read that someone “played in a bush league,” or perhaps you’ve even heard something described as being “bush league.” Indeed, this common phrase can be used either as a noun or an adjective, with two different yet closely related meanings. The adjective usage came later; its definition was derived from the original noun form and meaning of the expression. Keep reading to explore much more about the phrase bush league.

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What Does Bush League Mean?

As mentioned above, bush league can mean one of two things.

As a noun, bush league means “minor league.” A minor league is a group of teams in a sport that are not in that sport’s major, or premier, league. While they are professional teams, they aren’t as recognized as the teams in the major league. They usually play in smaller venues, have smaller budgets and smaller fan bases, and are often located in smaller cities than their major league counterparts. You’ll perhaps most often hear the terms major league and minor league applied to baseball: For example, the Boston Red Sox are a Major League Baseball, or MLB, team; they play in the famed Fenway Park to sold-out crowds, and their games are broadcast on big television networks. Conversely, the Pawtucket Red Sox are a minor league team; they play in a much smaller stadium to smaller crowds in the nearby town of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. There are also minor leagues in other sports, including basketball and soccer. Ice hockey is said to have the largest system of minor league teams outside of baseball. A person who plays in a bush league is called a bush leaguer

As an adjective, bush league means “inferior” or “amateur.” This meaning came from the original definition of bush league shared above, as the members of minor league teams usually don’t have the same ability as members of major league teams, and thus play at a lower or more amateurish level. (That’s not to say they won’t ever be in the same, ahem, ballpark as those in the majors. Players often spend time in minor leagues to develop their talent and improve their skill before moving to the major league.) Although bush league teams are professional teams, when used as an adjective, bush league can describe something that lacks sophistication or professionalism—something that’s not up to professional standards. In other words, something that is amateur or mediocre. (Find many additional synonyms below.) When used as an adjective, bush league is both a slang term and an idiomatic expression; learn more about idioms and slang in just a moment. 

As an adjective and a noun, bush league is typically a pejorative, or a phrase that carries a negative connotation and is intended to insult. 

Here are some example sentences using bush league:

  • Babe Ruth was so talented he hardly spent any time at all in the bush league.
  • We didn’t want Jim on our hockey team; if you ask me, he’s barely even good enough for a bush league.
  • I could tell the wedding I attended was the first event the new event planning firm had ever put together: From the paper streamers to the plastic flowers, it was all very bush league. 
  • Every time I try to make a project I find on Pinterest, it just looks like a bush-league version of the original.

The Etymology of Bush League

According to Merriam-Webster, bush league was first used to mean “minor league” in 1902; however, some language experts have uncovered newspaper articles dating from 1899-1901 that use the expression. It appears the phrase was first used as an adjective meaning “inferior” around 1908.

Although we don’t hear it much in this way these days in the US, the term bush can refer to a rural, unpopulated area—the country versus the city. Indeed, uncleared, country spaces in colonial America were referred to as “the bush,” just as undeveloped, wild, natural areas are still referred to as “the bush” in Australia. While today the idea of being from “the bush” might carry a value judgement, back then, bush was mostly used to distinguish a sparsely populated and uncleared country area from a more densely populated and developed city. However, as previously mentioned, the phrase bush league did appear to convey some judgment from its beginning.

It’s thought that bush league was born out of this definition of bush, as small-town teams in the early days of baseball, that were unaffiliated with the major league teams of the time, played in these remote areas. It’s also thought that the term could have arisen out of the fact that because many of these teams lacked significant funds, they often played on fields that were unkept and overgrown with shrubs and weeds or surrounded by bushes, either purposefully, in that shrubbery served as a more affordable fencing option, or by chance, because the areas were rural and so they were bordered by wooded areas.

Some experts even suggest it came from the idea of bush meaning “rural” and from the notion that crowds were often more rowdy and unprofessional in these small, country towns; that they’d do everything they could to distract and throw off the visiting team. Thus, they speculate, bush league came about to mean “unprofessional.”

However the phrase came to describe amateur baseball teams, not long after it hit the scene, it began being used to describe anything at a low, inferior, less-than-expert level.

Understanding Idioms and Slang

As a noun or adjective, bush league is a slang expression. Slang is a very informal type of language. Typically, slang words and phrases are more often spoken than written, and they may be more commonly used by a particular group of people or in specific settings. In slang, words with one definition may be arbitrarily assigned a different definition. For example, tea is a slang word for gossip, and dough is a slang term for money. In this example, while the term bush originally didn’t have any value judgement associated with it and just meant “rural,” as a slang expression it became a pejorative, or an insult.

As an adjective, the phrase bush league is considered an idiom. An idiom is an expression that’s intended meaning can’t fully be deduced just by looking at the words that comprise it. These words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning. Like slang words, idioms are often conversational and informal. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head. 

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

Take the phrase bush league at face value, and like the examples just shared, it doesn’t make much sense. A group of shrubs?! Even if you knew that bush can mean “rural,” you’d still be hard-pressed to look at the expression literally and arrive at its intended meaning when used as an adjective. You simply must know the figurative usage and corresponding definition, to mean “inferior,” “subpar,” or “amateur.”

Discover the meanings of many more idioms here; learn more about slang here.

Big League: Bush League’s Antonym

The phrase big league is, in essence, the antonym of bush league. It appears it was first used before bush league, around 1883. It can also be used as a noun or an adjective. As a noun, it commonly refers to the highest-ranking classification in baseball, aka the Major League, or to the premier or most important league in other sports. It can also be used as an idiomatic expression, as a noun or adjective, to describe the top rank attainable or the highest, most prestigious level of accomplishment or achievement. In other words, something important or, well, major!

Synonyms for Bush League

If you’re looking for other adjectives to indicate that something is inferior or mediocre, there are many terms and phrases you can use in place of bush league, including:

  • amateur
  • inadequate
  • inept
  • inexperienced
  • unqualified
  • unskilled
  • second-string
  • secondary
  • two-bit
  • insignificant
  • second-rate
  • small potatoes
  • deficient
  • incompetent
  • incomplete
  • lacking
  • meager
  • mediocre
  • lame
  • dissatisfactory
  • lousy
  • paltry
  • suboptimal 
  • subpar 
  • substandard
  • unacceptable
  • unsatisfactory

A thesaurus will turn up additional options.

Summary

Bush league can be used as a noun or adjective. As a noun, it refers to minor leagues in sports. As an adjective, it’s a slang and idiomatic expression meaning “inferior,” “amateur,” or “subpar.”