"balls to the wall"

Jesse Sheidlower jester at PANIX.COM
Sat Feb 11 22:35:31 UTC 2006

On Sat, Feb 11, 2006 at 05:24:12PM -0500, douglas at NB.NET wrote:
> >   "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.
> "Ball to the wall" in the appropriate sense *can* be found, although I
> haven't found it early. But there were different controls, including, I
> think, separate throttles for multiple engines in some planes, so the
> pluralization could be primordial.
> Assuming Jesse Sheidlower et al. were quoted correctly, though, I would
> assume that the etymology involving aircraft controls has some
> substantiation, some paper trail or at least multiple independent oral
> testimonials. Otherwise it's just a guess, and IMHO would/should have been
> presented as such ... although it looks to me like a pretty good guess at
> a glance. One alternative (less good, IMHO) guess would involve the use of
> "ball to the wall" in baseball.

As I reponded to JEL off-list, I checked whatever I could with
two historians at the National Museum of the U.S. Air
Force. They had not heard the etymology, which I took as a
good sign, as they did not then try to twist the facts to fit
a known story. They said that it was typical to have
ball-shaped grips on control levers of airplanes at the time
(I didn't ask for specifics, though I should have); that it
was typical for more than two such levers (I was curious about
the plurality of "balls") to be involved in making a plane go
fast (certainly the throttle (or throttles), and probably the
joystick, though others as well, depending on the type of
plane (fuel-air mixture, propellor pitch)), always with
forward being faster; that it's typical to call the firewall
the "wall" (and not "dashboard" or "front of the plane").

The early evidence is all from military-aviation sources (with
additional, later oral support). I wasn't able to find any
early supporting evidence from baseball, but I tried.

Certainly I'd change my opinion if other evidence came to
light or the facts changed (no ball-shaped grips, earlier
quotes from non-aviation contexts, etc.).

Jesse Sheidlower

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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