Spare a thought, as you probably often do, for your genitals. In the course of everyday conversation, while they’re down there minding their own business and (usually) doing nothing wrong, they get called the worst names. While vaginas suffer the indignity of the most powerful insult in the language, and penises are routinely treated with pure disdain (the cocks), arguably it’s poor, put-upon testicles that get the rawest deal of all.
As far as colloquial English is concerned, they’re frequently labeled the sad little losers of the crotch world. When something goes wrong it’s a “balls up” — if you’re Irish, you might have “made a balls of it”; when you’re facing a decisive, inevitable defeat, your opponent “has you by the balls”; when you’re being nagged or belittled, someone is “busting” or “breaking” your balls. Yes, physically they’re disappointing-looking things, and famously the tenderest kicking-point in any male human’s anatomy. But do they deserve to stand for failure in quite so many colorful ways?
Because, in direct contradiction of all the above, “balls” also means bravery and pluck, and metaphorically big ones are the sure sign of a winner when we say things like “balls of steel,” “grow a pair,” etc. Even more baffling is when, primarily in American English, they’re occasionally rolled out in similes that make little to no literal sense: Atmospheric conditions can be as “hot as balls,” or the opposite, “cold as balls”; your internet connection can be as “fast as balls,” while your uncle’s driving might be “slow as balls” — perhaps because he’s “old as balls.”
Most mystifying of all, though, is the version that’s emerged in stoner culture. When you’re “high as balls” you’re deemed to be very chemically transported indeed — as in extremely baked, blazed, munted (British), madourofit (Irish) or off your box on diction-altering substances. For an appreciation of just how high “high as balls” should be taken to be, see this teenager, just coming round from a general anesthetic after wisdom-teeth surgery, and whose social filters have been temporarily removed, to her parents’ horror/amusement (hard to tell):
As evocative phrases go, this just shouldn’t work. A gentleman’s particulars are hardly something to which you’d naturally ascribe a lofty altitude — except, perhaps, from the perspective of being passed out on the floor. Where does this supremely illogical comparison come from? And more importantly, why does it, along with all the other “as balls” similes, make perfect sense? Because it does. You don’t have to be in any way chonged yourself to understand exactly what she means, nor to find “high as balls” a funny, fitting and accurate description of what she’s feeling.
My own uneducated first stab at why “high as balls” works so well is that it’s a psychedelic mis-rendering of “highball,” meaning “cocktail,” which is another method of getting fragrantly intoxicated. But this is, in the nicest way possible, roundly dismissed as bullshit by Grant Barrett, who is co-host of the public radio show A Way With Words and editor of slang dictionaries including The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English and The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang. “That’s a good guess, but I don’t think so,” Barrett demurs. Instead, he says, the “balls” bit in most “as balls” expressions isn’t functioning as a pair of testicles at all, but rather as an intensifier, or “strengthener” — a largely empty conduit for emphasizing an idea — while its “semantic force, the meaning of testicles, has withered away (no pun intended).”
Essentially, he explains, in this context “balls” is a standard specimen of a linguistic quirk particularly common in American and Australian English, where “[we] tend to overstate or exaggerate, to a great degree, and it’s part of our daily language.” Acknowledging the negative connotations of “balls,” he says the more relevant meanings in this manifestation are its positive ones. Alongside the masculine-heroic associations (“of steel” etc.), he says, “We also have things like ‘balls to the wall’ or ‘balls to the wind,’ meaning ‘it went at top speed…’ We also have ‘it’s the balls!’, the equivalent of ‘it’s the nuts!’ dating as far back as the 1950s. We often find in English that we take a word that has some positive sense, and we borrow that positive force and remove the meaning. The semantic component fades away, and all that’s left is the emphatic force. And that’s what’s carried away when we use it in an expression like ‘I was tripping balls.’”
Addressing the ‘Balls’
“Tripping balls,” Barrett notes in passing, is the balls-related phrase he’s most often come across in California drugs parlance. It’s also the version familiar to Tony Thorne, a lexicographer and language consultant at King’s College London, who’s authored various slang dictionaries, as well as Shoot the Puppy: A Survival Guide to the Curious Jargon of Modern Life.
Thorne has been gathering examples of slang, jargon, idioms and other forms of informal language for 30 years. “I’ve always thought slang is an important part of language,” he says, “because it’s all about people’s emotions, their interactions, and some of the most important things in their lives, actually, are expressed in it.” According to Thorne, the expression “tripping balls” is “quite old drug users’ slang.” It seems to have existed in counter-cultural circles since at least the 1980s, and has gradually found its way into wider circulation. In 2004, for example, it was uttered to startling effect by Neil Patrick Harris in cult stoner movie Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle:
It’s since popped up in South Park and American Dad, and in 2014 it had a brush with officialdom, making what’s thought to be its debut in a police report — when officers apprehended a woman running naked at night through a parking lot in Fayetteville, Arkansas. They wrote it up thusly: “I was dispatched to the area of Church and Center for a naked female running down Center Street. The caller stated she was intoxicated on drugs and ‘tripping balls.’”
But was she also “high as balls”? Until I’d brought it to his attention, Thorne says, “I hadn’t seen this intensifier version.” So he asked his friends. “Nobody in the U.K. or Australia had come across it (some of them are linguists, some of them are journalists), but people in the U.S. were aware of it, though nobody knew where it came from.”
He points to the etymology posited for “as balls” on Urban Dictionary, which suggests it emerged as a softer way of hyperbolizing with an “as fuck” or an “as shit” — “what we call an ‘avoidance,’” says Thorne. This seems an inadequate account to him, though, since “it’s very rare in the U.S. to use ‘balls’ as a euphemism for something ruder.” Instead, like Barrett, he sees it as a usage that’s come loose from its literal meaning, though perhaps not yet fully castrated.
For an explanation that comes nearer the mark, he cites a 2016 article on Slate by Iva Cheung, who traces the growth in popularity of “as balls” expressions back to the “hot as balls” heatwave of 2006, and in which Cheung goes into impressive technical detail as to what makes them distinct from their “as fuck” or “as shit” cousins. These more profane ways to emphasize, she says, function as intensifiers without being true similes — they don’t conjure pictures in your mind, whereas “as balls” evokes an image, albeit a residual one. “The incongruity of these adjectives adds to the humor because we still picture testicles when we encounter the phrases,” she suggests.
This faint flashcard of an illicit body part is something Barrett refers to as a “pragmatic marker” — the linguist’s term for the elements of a phrase’s meaning that can’t be captured adequately by its literal, dictionary definition. It’s the unarticulated shifts in pungency between the American word “ass” and British “arse,” for example, and between these and other synonyms such as “derrière,” “butt” or “rear end.” With “high as balls,” he says, it’s the testicular trace element that identifies the phrase as informal language akin to slang and curse words: “There is a component left behind in this [instance of] ‘balls’ — it’s this pragmatic marker that there’s something risqué, something of a low register, left behind, as well as the emphatic force.”
Thorne thinks the surreal humor of a willfully irrational comparison is key to the success of “high as balls” as a keeper in drugs lingo. “I think it’s something which has been picked up by stoners because it sounds silly and odd and quirky.” He is fascinated by the fact that “nobody seems to know where this actually arose, because this is what a lot of slang is like,” he says. “It’s coined by anonymous people in probably quite small peer groups, and then it somehow escapes. But some of it, of course, doesn’t escape.”
The Inexplicable Stickiness of ‘Balls’
Slang terms, jargon and idiomatic expressions such as “high as balls” serve a number of different functions in the communities and subcultures in which they arise. They might throw polite society off the scent (at least for a while) of taboo topics and meanings. They mark out the territory of an in-group, whereby cult terms become something users can bond over and use to signal their membership. The argot of a cultural tribe can also set it apart from society at large, in opposition, or as an alternative, to the mainstream. “It’s a status thing,” says Thorne. “It’s a prestige thing within a group, to share these weird words.”
But how is it that even bizarre terms with the most abstruse meanings occasionally break out of their birth communities and become popular buzzwords in wider society? And why aren’t the people who use them fazed or put off by their linguistic grotesqueness and/or sheer bonkersness?
“As a so-called expert on slang,” says Thorne, “I can’t predict, and nobody can predict, which phrases — not just slang, but all colorful colloquial language, clichés, proverbs — will catch on and which ones won’t. With slang, it seems to be completely random which ones are picked up and which ones disappear.”
Even at its most widely understood, English is littered with expressions whose constituent words bear no relation to the meaning they impart. Barrett says his radio show fields questions every week from perplexed listeners — often those whose first language isn’t English, but native speakers too — who want these “sand traps” made sense of. “They want to parse these idioms out and take each word separately,” he says. One caller, for example, wanted to know how “fat chance” can mean the same thing as its literal opposite, “slim chance.” You might try, says Barrett, to “define ‘fat’ separately from ‘chance,’ and look at the ‘fat’ entry in the dictionary separately from the ‘chance’ entry. And you can’t do that. You can’t look up ‘high’ separately from ‘balls’ and come to the meeting of ‘high as balls.’” It’s not just that phrases like these have become more than the sum of their parts — their parts have fused and mutated in transmission to create new meanings entirely.
Thorne offers other examples of “folk phrases, which aren’t exactly slang but sort of folk proverbs — things like ‘dressed up to the nines’ and ‘sold down the river.’” We all know what they mean, but even lexicographers are often ultimately in the dark about precisely why they mean what they mean. (Thorne warns about folk etymologies — popular explanations for word origins that can be just as baseless and gossiped into circulation as the phrases themselves: “It gets replicated all over the place until people think it’s true,” he says. “‘Dressed up to the nines?’ “Nobody knows what it means. There’s speculation that it could be ‘9 out of 10,’ as in ‘almost perfect’; there’s speculation that it could be from ‘dressed up to thine eyne’ which is Middle English for ‘your eyes.’ But it’s complete speculation.”)
Divorced from a transparent origin and clear signification, one thing that might help make a saying popular is its musical quality. “A phrase has got to have a euphony,” says Thorne. Linguists, he says, will talk about the ‘phonaesthetics’ or ‘sound symbolism,’ of a speech fragment: How the sounds of words resonate with us; why some phrases sing to us while others fall flat. “We still don’t know why certain sounds are catchy or attractive or unattractive, and others aren’t,” he says, but points out that “‘balls’ is a kind of striking, funny, explosive word. So for that reason it’s catchy.”
Another source of stickiness might be our primal emotional responses to images and situations evoked by certain words. Citing the research of psycholinguists, Thorne believes that if a set phrase “conforms to some kind of basic human reaction or instinct, then it’s much more readily picked up. There’s a kind of unconscious, ‘Oh yes, I recognize that!’ feeling, or ‘I sympathize with that idea.’” He illustrates with a, like, totally bitchin’ example from the late 1970s and early 1980s: “The Valley girls used to say, ‘Oh, gag me with a spoon!’ It was one of their exclamations, and it probably came from the notion of going to the doctor’s where, if they were trying to look down your throat, they’d put a spoon on your tongue.” For the Southern Californian prep set, the image became the first thing they thought of when they wanted a more clubbable version of “eww!” or “disgusting!”
“You wouldn’t say it caught on,” says Thorne, “because I don’t think a lot of people actually said it. But a lot of people recognize it, even today. It came from that subculture, and it was vivid, funny and silly.”
Ultimately, Thorne thinks it’s a fortuitous convergence of all of these factors that ensures a freaky phrase’s success: euphony (it sounds right); empathy (it feels right); and a kind of humor or characterization that somehow encapsulates the subculture it’s born into. Added together, what you get is the feeling that somehow you’ve heard this expression to mean this thing, in this context, somewhere before — even if it’s the first time you’ve encountered it. “I think that’s what the ‘as balls’ has — because ‘as balls’ is very stupid,” he says. “It sounds like something SpongeBob SquarePants might say; it’s geeky, nerdy,” and, he says, speaks directly to “stoners being stoned.”
Language Likes Curve Balls
As to why, in some groups and in certain circumstances, an awkwardly obscure term is actively preferred to a more plain-speaking alternative, sometimes, says Garrett, the choice is intentional. “With underworld cultures like stoner culture, some of the wilder sports, some of the far-out politics, they come up with this new language to poke fun at people who aren’t like them.” On the other hand, a great deal of phrase-mongering and meaning-mangling is unintended. “We just naturally do this. We’re a gregarious species,” he says, “and it’s just part of the way that we bond. We come up with this language, and it happens relatively quickly — I don’t know if you’ve ever done a sleepaway camp when you were a kid, but you might come back from that camp with new bits of language that you didn’t have when you arrived.”
When it comes to generating and adapting language, one of our most fertile qualities as a species is our sense of playfulness. “Sometimes language is disorderly just because there’s natural change and we’re all different people; we’re not all having the same life experience,” says Garrett. “But some of it, and a fair amount of it, is because we’re playful. We’re whimsical; we tease; we beguile; we flirt; we crack jokes; we switch stuff around just to see how it will sound; we mispronounce on purpose, because we thought it would be funny, or we wanted to sound cute, or we wanted to imitate a baby. We do all these things intentionally, and sometimes that comes up and sticks. And that’s a part of humans playing with language; it doesn’t have to be anything else [other] than just intentional whimsy.”
Evidence for this is the prevalence of puns, wordplay and allusion that turns speech into a hall of mirrors at every linguistic level — from idiolect (the speech quirks and coinages of a single person) to familect (the private slang generated within families) to the in-jokes and micro-dialects that often evolve within workplaces and institutions. “I remember when I used to collect slang from my students, and they would use stuff because it just sounded absolutely stupid,” says Thorne. “Instead of saying ‘Goodbye!’ they’d say ‘Abyssinia!’ which is really old” (a historical name for the northern region of the Horn of Africa, which has drifted in and out of favor down the centuries, and which some wit or other in Thorne’s classes had noticed happens to sound a little like, “I’ll be seeing ya”). “But then,” he adds, “they changed it to ‘Ethiopia.’ Which of course doesn’t mean anything. It really is stupid, childish stuff.”
It’s the juvenile jargon that Thorne has a soft spot for. His all-time favorite idiomatic expressions in three decades of collecting them are just as dumb, pointless and oddly gratifying as “high as balls.” “I picked them up from working with people in advertising back in the 2000s,” he says. “There’s ‘okie dokie, artichokie.’ And the one I always use, which is ‘over and out, rainbow trout.’” It’s the same with all of these zingers, he says: “Phrases like ‘jumping the shark’ or ‘the pig in the python’ or ‘shoot the puppy,’ they start in exactly the same way, with some group of people kidding around. Then some of them escape.”
If newly minted slang crossing over to ordinary speech is a process rarely witnessed in the wild by linguists and lexicographers — and still only beginning to be understood — there’s one beautiful illustration of it in the 1996 bowling comedy Kingpin. The movie turns on the moment Woody Harrelson’s character, one-time contender Roy Munson, suffers the horrific realization that his own name has ascended from local bowling-alley in-joke into a slang term synonymous with “to fail spectacularly” or (if you like) “to balls something up.” The moment is given extra pathos by the fact that it’s even in circulation among the insular and unworldly Amish community. “I’d sooner get Munsoned out here in the middle of nowhere than lose face in front of my friends and family,” says his despondent friend, Ishmael, triggering the most regrettable flashback in cinema history.
“A point I always make,” says Thorne, “is that slang isn’t a deficient kind of language. In fact, it uses the techniques, like metaphor, simile, synecdoche, metonymy — all of these rhetorical tricks — and it uses the technical potential of the language, in exactly the same way that poetry and literature do. But it uses them even more. It’s actually a very dynamic, creative, productive part of language.”
Yes sir, it’s productive as balls. And with that, it’s over and out, rainbow trout. Ethiopia.