"balls to the wall"

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Sat Feb 11 21:38:23 UTC 2006

  I sent the following to Bethany, but I meant everyone to get it. Sorry.

  "I doubt the truthfulness of the purported origin of the phrase.

  1. No one has ever reported *"going ball to the wall." Even if such a form once existed, the pluralization, especially in the aggressive contexts in which the term is used, strongly implies a testicular reference.

  2. The earlier "balls out" seems to be a dysphemistic form of "all out."

  3. "Balls to the wall" is easily understood as an elaboration of "balls out."

  4. As far as we can tell, "balls to the wall" originated at a time when "ballsy" (gutsy in manly sort of way) was in fairly common use. (PC has reduced its frequency.)

  5. Even if, in the mind of its originator, unattested *"ball to the wall" was a perfectly innocent reference to the "ball" on a control stick (which doesn't even sound plausible to me, given the tenor of much reported fighter-pilot conversation), one wonders how many auditors would understand it that way.  It is significant that some kind if testicular reference was immediately assumed by non-fighter pilots. Why should those who first heard the term decades ago have thought any differently ?

  The issue resembles that of the origin of "It sucks."  Regardless of what the originator(s) of that _expression may have had in mind, the effective associations for most people seem to be homosexual ones.

  There is simply no way to determine absolutely the ultimate source of such things, but rude sexual allusions are so common (and commonly perceived) in unrefined speech that it seems gratuitous to search farther afield when "balls" are mentioned unless the controverting evidence is overwhelming. In the case of "balls to the wall," it isn't."

Some further thoughts:

  A very basic question that has gone unaddressed is whether the throttles of 1950's/'60s "fighter jets" even had ball-shaped tops. Unlike fancy sports cars, their cockpits made no concessions whatever to style.

  Photos findable by Googling "F-100" / "F-4"/ "F-105" + "cockpit layout" reveal that these particular military planes, among the most widely deployed during the 1960s, did not have ball-topped throttles. Fighters of WWII, BTW, typically had more-or-less flat-topped "joystick" style throttles with the red firing button for machine guns on the  top.

  Photos show that modern jets, such as the F-16, have more streamlined throttles with an even wider top surface to accomodate extra buttons.

  If *any* high-performance airplane in the NATO arsenal has been equipped with the sort of throttle described in the cited journalism (which seems to rely on material quoted, but not expressly endorsed, in HDAS 1), the burden would seem to be on proponents of the "firewalling" origin of "balls-to-the-wall" to tell us exactly which aircraft were alluded to.

  Jet bombers are distinct from "fighter" jets, though I've noticed young TV reporters regularly using "fighter jet" as a synonym for any jet combat plane.  Perhaps the B-47, B-58, B-52, B-66, or some other aircraft had the type of throttle that might have given rise to "balls to the wall," but so far nobody has identified such an aircraft.

  Until they do, we should remember that there is absolutely no known evidence, beyond dubious assertions, to support the claim that the origin of "balls to the wall" is actually technological.

   I certainly agree, though, that the "hammer-and-nails" is entirely ludicrous.


   "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET> wrote:
  ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: "Joel S. Berson"
Subject: Re: "balls to the wall"

Thanks for this! I wondered how it had passed the TV censors.


At 2/11/2006 02:51 AM, Ben Zimmer wrote:
>On 2/10/06, Laurence Horn wrote:
> > Speaking of Safire, what are the odds that he'll be mentioning, next
> > week perhaps, the recurrence of "balls to the wall" in today's
> > testimony by "Heckuvajob" Brownie, late of FEMA, about the need for
> > an all-out response and in the responses by the senators (at least
> > one of whom, I forget which, turned it into "balls to the walls").
> >
> > But, as I'm sure Safire will also make clear, "balls to the wall"
> > doesn't derive from what it sounds like it derives from. Cf. e.g.
> > http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19990708
>Even better, see:

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