Recently, when I was doing a deep dive into humanity’s hopeless quest for a pizza cone, I used the phrase “balls to the wall” to describe my effort to make the culinary oddity. I’ve certainly used the expression before, but something about this time got me thinking: “Where the hell did ‘balls to the wall’ come from, and why does it mean ‘to go at full speed?’” I mean, if someone literally had their balls pressed to a wall, would the wall’s presence not prevent this person from proceeding at any speed, much less a quick one?
And what about every other ball expression? I’m sure stuff like “keep your eye on the ball” and “the ball is in your court” came from sports, but what about “tripping balls” and “busting balls”? Where do they come from, and why is modern English so heavy on the testicle-talk?
I did a little digging, and even consulted a highly respected etymologist to help me out. Here’s what I found about some of the ballsiest turns of phrase…
The natural place to start is with the use of the word “balls” to describe testicles. Since testicles are quite ball-like, it’s probably a rather obvious comparison, yet it’s not universal. In Spanish, for example, you’re much more likely to hear “huevos” — or “eggs” — as the slang word of choice.
According to etymologist Barry Popik, we’ve been using “balls” to describe testicles since at least the 1300s. The earliest known example of its use was in 1325 in The Proverbs of Hendyng, which was a book of various kinds of religious and moral advice. The ball quote, in Old English, reads: “Þe maide þat ȝevit hirsilf alle / oþir to fre man, oþir to þralle / ar ringe be ſet an honde / and pleiit with þe croke and wiþ þe balle / and mekit gret þat erst was smalle.” Per Grammarphobia’s translation, that means: “The maid that giveth herself all / either to free man or thrall / ere ring be set on hand / and playeth with the crook [penis] and with the ball / and maketh great what once was small.”
This, of course, got the ball rolling on countless other ball-centric expressions.
“Get the Ball Rolling”
Speaking of, I might as well address “get the ball rolling,” which was popularized in the U.S. in 1840. According to Grammarist, “During the 1840 presidential campaign, William Harrison employed a gimmick known as Victory Balls. These balls were 10 feet in diameter, consisting of leather and tin, and were pushed from one campaign rally to the next while the crowd chanted, ‘Keep the ball rolling.’”
Although that’s when it caught on stateside, the phrase itself has murky origins. The Free Dictionary and Dictionary.com cite it as coming from the late 1700s in regards to any sport that required a ball to keep moving. However, Grammarist says it came about with croquet, which originated in 1856.
“Bust My Balls” and “Break My Balls”
Supposedly, “bust my balls,” “break my balls” and all the “ball-busting” and “ball-breaking” phrases related to them have to do with cattle castration, or so claims the educational site Today I Found Out. But the details are vague, and I can’t confirm this anywhere else, so I’d take it with a grain of salt.
What can be confirmed is that these expressions began appearing in print in the mid-20th century, which likely means they existed as slang for at least a decade or more before then. In the 1945 novel All Thy Conquests, one character tells another, “Don’t tell me how to drive and don’t break my balls.” As for “bust my balls,” that first appeared in print in boxer Rocky Graziano’s memoir Somebody Up There Likes Me. “Breaking your balls” was also popularized in Goodfellas in 1990 when Frank Vincent’s Billy Batts tells Joe Pesci, “I’m breaking your balls a little bit, that’s all.”
“Got Him By the Balls”
Expressions like “got him by the leg” have existed since at least the late 1800s, but the first known instance of “getting one by the balls” was in the 1929 novel Her Privates We. In it, a soldier laments, “Once we’re in the army, they’ve got us by the balls.”
The book was authored by Australian-born British author Frederic Manning, who served in the British Army in World War I. It’s entirely possible that he heard this expression from fellow soldiers, as a lot of slang words have been spread by soldiers interacting with each other.
In our thorough investigation of blue balls, we explained that the expression was first recorded back in 1916 in a dictionary of slang terms. The definition was “a pain in the testicles caused by long periods of sexual arousal without release,” which is still what it means today. As for why it’s called that, the expression is literal. When testicles go through the aforementioned long periods of arousal without release, deoxygenated blood can pool in them, giving them a blue-ish tint.
“Tripping Balls” and “High as Balls”
These ball-oriented phrases have ambiguous origins, though “tripping balls” may go back to the 1980s. According to Know Your Meme, “A poster in the psychedelic drug enthusiast BlueLight forum claims the use of phrase ‘tripping balls’ dates as far back as 1985, referring to bouncy balls that served as talismans to help people connect with reality while under the effects of a hallucinogen.” That sounds cool, but I can find no other references to people using bouncy balls to ground themselves during a hallucinogenic trip, so it’s quite possibly bullshit.
In our previous exploration of this subject, lexicographer Tony Thorne confirmed that these expressions dated back to the 1980s, but couldn’t pinpoint an exact origin. He also noted that “as balls” became popular in the early 2000s thanks to TV shows like South Park and films like Harold and Kumar, the latter of which features Neil Patrick Harris admitting he’s “tripping balls” because of “some incredible X” he just had at a party.
The association of “balls” and courage dates back to at least to the early 1940s, and “ballsy” was first recorded in the 1950s. With that, “balls out” as in “to do something dangerous,” goes back to at least 1945, when it was found painted on the side of a WWII fighter jet flown by Captain Milt Thompson.
As for its origins, The Free Dictionary says, “The phrase most likely originated as a railroad engineering term, referring to the mechanical governor of steam locomotives, which has two weighted steel balls that extend to the ‘balls out’ position when at maximum speed.”
“Balls to the Wall”
Finally, the phrase that started me down this rabbit hole. To my surprise, the expression — which means maximum speed or effort — has nothing at all to do with testicles. As Slate explains, it comes from aviation. During the Vietnam War, fighter jets had joysticks that were topped with a ball, and to put the “balls to the wall” meant to put the plane into a full-speed dive. Slate describes it as, “essentially the aeronautical equivalent of the automotive ‘pedal to the metal.’”
Honestly, as cool as that origin is, I’m a little disappointed to find out that “balls to the wall” is completely unrelated to testicles — or walls. Every time I think I have the English language figured out, it finds another way to bust my balls.