Bowling Lingo & Terms

When speaking to bowlers, they can sound like they’re using a completely different language. This confusion that new players encounter is based on a more than 100-year history of the evolution of bowling terms. 

Nevertheless, bowling lingo doesn’t have to sound like gobbledygook any longer because I’ve put together a summary of the most common terms used:


Head pin

The head pin is the pin at the front of the pyramid of tenpins. This pin is the one closest to you when you’re at the foul line. 

When going for a strike, you want the ball to hit this first pin and one of the pins directly behind it. 

Foul Line

The foul line is the line where the lane begins. It is usually a solid black line and says “Slip Hazard – Do Not Cross.” 

Pin Deck 

The pin deck area is where you’ll see the standing pins at the end of the lane. They are usually about 60 feet from the beginning of the lane—black dots in this area show where the bowling pins should lay. 

House Ball

A house ball is a bowling ball that anyone in the alley can use. They are on a ball rack near the lanes. 

House bowling balls come in different sizes but are generally between six and sixteen pounds. They also have different grip hole shapes and angles to accommodate different-sized hands. 

Alleys typically buy all of their house balls with a polyester cover because it’s hard and durable, so it can be used often. 

League Play 

League play is when several teams play against each other over a season. Teams typically have three to five players and meet every week to play. 

Every session, you face another team and usually play three games. 

Different bowling alleys often have separate types of leagues. For instance, some have leagues for men and women, and others differentiate by the players’ skill levels. 

Most alleys have tenpin bowling leagues. 

Match play is a one-on-one competition instead of a team sport. 

Pocket and Spot Bowling

When shooting the first ball of a set, the pocket is where you should aim so the least amount of pins remain standing. 

Ideally, you don’t want a light pocket hit. You want a very fast ball on the first throw to gain all the strikes you can. 

For a right-handed bowler, the pocket is between the first and third pin. The first pin is the head pin, while the third pin is the pin on the right of the second row of the pyramid. 

The arrow to the center-right on the lane is where you want the ball hitting the pocket. 

Since right-handed bowlers are the most common players, a ball track begins to appear where the ball crosses between the foul line and the two pins of the pocket. 

For left-handed bowlers, the pocket is between the first and second pin. The first pin is the head pin, while the second pin is the pin on the left of the second row. 

The arrow on the center-left of the lane is where a left-handed bowler should aim. 

Similarly, spot bowling is when a person aims for a specific spot on the lane for their ball to pass through rather than the pocket or two or more pins. 


A fill is the number of pins knocked down after a spare in the last set. A fill ball is a ball thrown during this time. 

Entry Angle

The entry angle is the direction that the bowling ball rolls in when the ball enters the pocket. The ball should hit the pocket at between four and six degrees for the best chance of a strike. 

Nonetheless, the perfect entry angle depends on the bowler and lane conditions. 


The American Bowling Congress (ABC) was first organized in New York City in 1895 to standardize bowling. The organization does testing and research to create rules and set equipment standards. 

The institution arranged its first national tournaments in 1901. By 1916, the Women’s International Bowling Congress established itself as an alternative association for women bowlers. 

The United States Bowling Congress (USBC), comparably, is a membership organization for bowlers. 

Gutter Ball

A gutter ball is when a bowling ball drops into the gutter or channel. The gutter is a semi-circular drop-off area on each side of the bowling lane. 

Gutter balls result in an open frame where the bowler knocks zero pins. 

Umbrella Ball

Umbrella balls are a high hit on the first ball that results in a strike. A bowler makes a high hit when there is too much impact on the head pin. 

Baby Split

A baby split is one of the more straightforward splits, either the two and seven split or the three and ten. 

Pitch Angle

The pitch angle refers to the angle of the finger holes and the thumb hole in a bowling ball. The proper angle depends on the shape and size of the bowler’s hand and influences his/her release technique. 

Pitch angles have two main orientations – forward and reverse. A forward angle is when the fingers curve towards the palm. 

Forward direction helps you to hold onto the ball better. 

Reverse, conversely, is when the fingers bend away from the palm. This angle allows a bowler to drop the ball more easily. 

Pitch angles also differ for different-handed bowlers so that their hands can fit as comfortably into the ball as possible. You’ll know if a bowling ball fits well for you if it lays against your palm when you have your fingers in the holes. 

Clean Game

A clean game is when you get a spare or strike in every frame. 

Bagger and Other Strike Terms

A strike is when you leave no pins standing. A bagger is a string of strikes. For example, a four-bagger is when you bowl four strikes in a row. 

Other terms for consecutive strikes include

  • a double – two consecutive strikes;
  • a triple or turkey – three consecutive strikes;
  • a hambone or square ball – four consecutive strikes;
  • a brat or high ball – five strikes in a row;
  • a sixer or wild turkey – six consecutive strikes;
  • a lucky seven – seven in a row;
  • a little big Pete or an octopus – eight in a row;
  • a golden turkey – nine consecutive strikes;
  • a dime bag – ten in a row;
  • an aces up – eleven in a row; and
  • a perfect game or dirty dozen – twelve consecutive strikes.


A strikeout is when you get three strikes in the tenth frame. A strikeout is a perfect game where you get only strikes and you’ve knocked all the pins in a game. 

Backup Ball 

A backup ball is a ball thrown with a reverse spin. This technique causes a change in ball reaction and often means the bowling ball takes a different path across the lane than usual. 

Double Wood

Also called a sleeper or tandem, this happens when there is a pin standing directly behind another one. 


A spare is when you knock down all the remaining pins on a second ball. To get a spare, you have to knock one or more pins on your first shot. 

Bowlers have to think about ball speed, the angle of their bowling arm, and the direction the ball travels, the number of pins left standing, and more when attempting a spare. 

Ball Return

The ball return is where the ball sits when it’s returned to you. 

Early Timing 

The timing is considered too early if a bowler releases the ball before the sliding foot completes its slide. 

Positive Axis Point

This point is determined by the axis the ball turns on when moving down the lane. 


Whether you’re an aspiring league player or a casual bowler, understanding the different bowling terms and familiarizing yourself with the lingo will make you feel more at home at the bowling alley – and it may even improve your game.