The choice of what word to use is a delicate one; one simply does not wish to make a balls-up of it. Thus one may consult a word sommelier:

Dear word sommelier: If I have a sentence such as “I can’t believe he had the ____ to do it,” do I want gall, nerve, chutzpah, effrontery, balls, or something else?

We have, so far this week, addressed the first four options. Yesterday we looked at the most formal, prim, perhaps even feminine one, effrontery. Today we are at the other end of the scale. I can’t believe he had the balls to do it is not something a politician is likely to say in an interview – you’ll sooner hear it in a sports bar or a garage.

There are, of course, other anatomical references available to express roughly the same concept. Gall is one (a bodily fluid); cheek is another; nerve is a third; guts is slightly different in sense but still in the same general vein. There is even an anatomical reference in effrontery (the forehead). But balls hits below the belt. It is a direct reference to pudenda, and as such is particularly impudent.

Also obviously masculine. Which makes this word undeniably sexist, in that it assigns a certain brashness and nerve to males. This is, of course, a reflection of a general cultural norm; aggressive women have long been described with masculine terms. But at least it’s not a put-down to call a woman ballsy, even if it is an implied put-down of the average member of her sex (let’s see, is there a good way to phrase that without using member and sex? never mind).

Nor is it a put-down of the woman in question to say I can’t believe she had the balls to do it (and it has been said; you can find that very phrase, and others like it, with a simple Google search). Anatomically inaccurate, to be sure, unless the balls in question happen to be some dude’s nuts that she’s squeezing (had having multiple shades of sense available). But aside from the sexism (and, of course, because of cultural sexism), this may be the most admiring of the options. If you use a word like this, it is because you admire courage and confidence and you associate them with masculinity – or at least because you’re willing to make use of a cultural norm that assigns such values.

Now, one might well point out that she had the balls to do it could be a reference to some craft project involving spheres, or perhaps a game of some sort – maybe she just tossed her bat aside and walked to first base. But you know, and I know that you know, and you know that I know that you know, that such reference would have to be specified clearly, and even then the sexual reference would bleed through like pentimento. To give a parallel example, military pilots, referring to flying full throttle, made reference to the dual ball ends on the throttle stick in the phrase balls to the wall, but they clearly did so with a smirk.

Ball, singular, is, true enough, a word that one may use quite innocuously without provoking Beavis-and-Butt-head-type snickerfests. It’s a good old English word with cognates of the same or similar meaning throughout the Germanic languages; it also comes from the same Indo-European root as Latin follis “inflated ball, bellows” and Greek ϕαλλός phallos… yes, that’s right, phallus and balls have the same root. OK, OK… can we continue now?

The point (stop that) is that balls in the plural is by default a reference to balls in the dual, and you know which two balls. The paradoxical association that testicles carry of masculine aggression with vulnerability (and pain!) has led to a few different balls expressions: don’t bust my balls, we’ve got him by the balls, he really made a balls of it, and of course the exclamation Balls!

So, is balls the word you want? If you want to be coarse and admiring and you don’t mind the sexism of it (and you don’t think your audience will mind), then it’s your top choice. It has the same general sonic features as gall, except that it has the /z/ at the end to cap it off; it is a word that is practically made to be bawled loudly. If you want to be even a little proper, however, you’d have to be nuts to use it.

Stop that.

13 responses to “balls

  1. Pingback: effrontery | Sesquiotica

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  4. Pingback: chutzpah | Sesquiotica

  5. Almost an exhaustive treatise on the subject but you omit the increasing use of the Spanish term “cohones” as an alternative to “balls”. Madeleine Albright’s UN remark “this is not cohones …” is, I think linguistically slightly off the mark. As in their English counterpart one either (metaphorically) has them or one hasn’t. Maybe it was shortspeak for “this is not the act of someone with cohones”

    • I’m inclined to treat cojones differently, because when we use it we are not simply saying “balls” but are saying “balls, Spanish (or Mexican) style”. There’s a cultural reference there, to a culture with a perceived amplified attitude towards machismo, while at the same time there is the wink and the attenuation of rude force (and the self-congratulation for worldliness) that one gets when using a pointedly foreign term. So while we use it roughly interchangeably, knowing that the reference is the same, we use it when we want to seem less vulgar and yet at the same time to tap into a particular stereotyped image of machismo. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t merit mention, so thank you for bringing it up!

  6. So what do you say, language-meister: are balls a countable plural, or a singular attribute?! If I were to compare myself with another person (let’s say a girlfriend, for parity’s sake), do I have just as *much* balls as her, or as *many*? Actually, I think we need a proper feminine term — maybe from now on, I’ll just refer to my big brass cojonas.

    • Well, you couldn’t really say as many, because that just brings to mind a silly image. It’s a given that balls come in pairs; the differentiating factor is not their numerosity but their fortitude and perhaps their magnitude. We may talk about someone having really big balls or, perhaps more often, about the kind of balls that someone does or doesn’t have. We don’t generally talk about as much balls because we can’t escape the fact that balls are not a mass object: you don’t get them in cups or scoops, and you can’t talk about a little balls – although you can get away with a bit of balls in the right context, perhaps because a bit of is not as pointedly geared to a mass substance. But for questions of quantity, we generally resort to ballsiness (a more abstract quality) or something of that order. And otherwise we say things like she’s got some balls or you may be a man, but you’ll never have the kind of balls she has. Or, of course, we use a different term.

  7. Speaking of cojones makes me think of the Spanish word “huevos,” which has the same connotations, but literally means eggs. The Germans do the same thing — “die Eier” can mean both eggs and balls. This always struck me as peculiar: on the one hand, a handsome set of balls DO look a bit like a pair of eggs, but on the other hand eggs are very female in nature. The analogy is unknown in English, and I think in French as well. So what is it about German and Latino guys, that they refer to their most manly parts in terms of a quintessentially feminine product?! And do I address this to the language-meister, or the male-psychology-meister?

    • As it happens, I got an email from Izzy Cohen about just this topic. I think (hope) he won’t mind my sharing it here:

      A Hebrew slang term for testicles is BeiTZiM, literally, eggs.

      True story: I was riding a bus with about a dozen other passengers in Petah Tikva. A woman was walking towards the front of the bus in order to get off at the next stop. In her right hand she was carrying a half-tray (15) of eggs like a waiter carrying a tray of dishes. When the driver applied brakes she screamed: TiZaHeR, YeSH Li BeiTZiM BaYaD, literally, Be careful, I have eggs in hand. Everyone on the bus, including the driver and the woman with the eggs, laughed uproarously.

      Another member of the American Names Society claims that “eggs” is likewise a slang term for testicles in Russian.

  8. On the language side and specifically in the realm we are talking about, huevos and cojones are synonymous. I recently got an email with a video of a female newscaster challenging an individual on a subject that in that particular country one doesn’t normally challenge. The title of the email referred to the female presenter admiringly with “vaya huevos!”.
    As language-meister pro tem, I’ll mention that in Spanish, “huevo” is masculine. I understand their production process may be female (fertilization is another thing) but I would gently query whether they can be considered to be “female in nature”

  9. I’ve read that when female mammals (including humans) are born, their ovaries are already stocked with all the eggs they’ll release in a reproductive lifetime. Forgive me for thinking of that as a feminine attribute! Sperm = male contribution. Eggs = female contribution. Seems simple enough to me — except when some cultures confuse the issue by referring to the production centres of one product by the name of the other product….
    Regarding the Spanish thing, I’ve always wondered if there wasn’t some delicate linguistic distinction between huevos and cojones — is one more or less rude or informal than the other?

  10. I was wrong and I agree re feminine attribute of eggs. Sorry. The word is masculine in Latin languages (maybe because of the first vowel with or without the h) and apparently in Hebrew (Beitzim is masculine plural) but that has nothing to do with their attribute. On the linguistic distinction between huevos and cojones, I can speak only for Castilian Spanish and I can easily be challenged (see feminine attribute above) but, as I see it, to have “cojones” reflects an active event (you need “cojones” to do that), while “huevos” refers to bravery which can be passive. So Margaret Thatcher had “cojones” to go and invade some distant islands and what “huevos” she had in resisting the unions attacking her and the wets around her. Personally I never liked her but that’s not relevant.

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