Tag Archives: balls

Be on the ball with the origins of phrases

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

My topic today may seem a bit ribald, but I’m sure you’ll have a ball with it. It’s about monkey business with the origins of phrases, and how to make sure you stay on the ball and don’t hit a wall.

People love stories about the origins of words and phrases, but many of them are rather dodgy. A good general rule is: Look it up — on a reliable site such as worldwidewords.org or snopes.com. But if you don’t have immediate access to the web, or the phrase in question isn’t covered on the trustworthy sites, you can still apply a little real-world knowledge to estimate its trustworthiness.

Let’s start with two examples: cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey and balls to the wall. Those might seem rather off-colour, but popular accounts of their origins proclaim them both to be innocent. Let’s try applying our good sense to them.

For the brass monkey, the story often passed around is that on battleships, cannon balls were piled in pyramids on brass plates called monkeys, and when the weather got really cold, the differential shrinkage between the iron balls and the brass plate would cause the balls to dislodge.

For the wall, the story is that the balls in question are the two balls on a fighter pilot’s control sticks and the wall is the firewall between the pilot and the front of the plane — so balls to the wall means with the accelerator control and the ascend/descend control fully forward, putting you in a high-speed attack dive.

What do you think of the monkey story? It sounds convincing — don’t you remember something on a ship being called a “monkey,” and don’t metals shrink by different amounts with the cold? If you dwell on those, you might not stop to think about how steady the deck of a battleship isn’t. Really, balls piled in pyramids on a vessel where dishes slide off tables and shelves if they’re not held in place? And how much is that shrinkage, by the way? Do you have brass fixtures on your door? Do they shrink enough to pull on the screws or wood?

In fact, cannon balls were held in wooden frames so they wouldn’t roll all over. The “monkeys” on ships were “powder monkeys,” boys who carried charges. And a quick look online will tell you that the shrinkage rates of iron and brass are nearly identical — less than a millimetre per metre. As to the expression, earlier versions included references to freezing the tail off a brass monkey and being hot enough to melt the nose off a brass monkey. So the supposed “innocent” origin doesn’t pass the test — those are real monkey testes.

How about the pilots? What do those joysticks look like? If you recall that, sometimes at least, there’s a ball on each … you’re right. You’d be justified in reserving judgment on this one, because it’s so tidy, but the truth is that it’s correct: it came from fighter pilots in Korea and Vietnam. So that means it isn’t a crude reference? Heh. Please. These are military men. You can feel sure the double entendre was intended.

The army and the navy are often credited with popular turns of phrase. As we have seen, the credit is sometimes due and sometimes not. Another case where it is not due is on the ball. As you may know, at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich there is a red ball that is raised just before 1:00 pm each day and dropped exactly on the hour. It is bruited about that sailors who held fast to this time were said to be on the ball. It may seem reasonable enough; sailors did in fact need to use it to make sure their chronometers were accurate. But the historical record doesn’t support it. The phrase first showed up associated with baseball. Ah, yes, sports: a third field often credited — sometimes rightly — with the origins of phrases.

If that time ball sounds like an old acquaintance not to be forgot, then you are surely thinking of the one used in Times Square at New Year. Time balls for giving the hour to those at a distance were common in the 1800s, but their modern survival is mainly ceremonial, now most often associated with parties. Such as New Year’s balls? Well, yes, but that kind of ball — which we see also in have a ball (and yes, that’s where that phrase comes from) — may have music, but it does not require spheres. It comes from Latin ballare, “dance,” which we see in modern Spanish bailar, among others. A quick look in an etymological dictionary will tell you that.

And so we see you can truly have a ball with etymology — and, with good research, you can have another one, too.


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.