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Balls to the wall

Posted by R. Berg on March 28, 2002

In Reply to: Re: Balls out posted by R. Berg on March 28, 2002

: : : : : : : : Has anyne heard the term "balls out"? It is often used in business settings when a company
: : : : : : : : decides to change to a new software system. To go "balls out" means to install it and use it without
: : : : : : : : worrying about the way we've always done it.

: : : : : : : : Does the term come from the way the pendulum swings all the way out?

: : : : : : : Um. Well. Ahhh. No.

: : : : : : To go "balls out" means to throw caution to the winds and charge full-steam ahead. Without wanting to be too blunt as to the phrase's provenance, it's something which we males could do both figuratively *and* literally (though I can't think of any printable occasions when I'd do the latter), whereas the fairer sex is limited to doing it figuratively.

: : : : : I believe that this expression originated with the early steam engines whose governors were a pair of spinning balls, which described a larger and larger circle as the demanded speed, and hence their rotational speed, increased to control the steam valve and hence the flow of steam from boiler to pistons.

: : : : Ahahahahah. I can actually call to mind the device you describe - a pair of balls, each mounted at the hinge point that joins two rods of metal, right? So when the rods are spun around their vertical axis, the centrifugal force given to the balls causes them to pull out, thus making the hinges bend? Extremely plausible and actually I really and sincerely hope you're right on this, because it'll be pricelessly funny if you are.

: : : Tho I can't give you a definitive source, I can confirm that "balls out" does come from the days of steam engines and their governing devices, just as Mr Barney says. Mr Fallen and Mr Bob too from the look of it can console themselves in knowing that their alternative belief is far more popular than the correct one. And to know this sort of detail about steam engines, you'd have to be kinda geeky about them too.

: : This is a difficult question. Is any documentation forthcoming to support either possibility? The dictionaries seem to prefer a derivation from the anatomical balls, but the mechanical-balls story seems believable too. Apparently the expression is only known from WW II times or so. Does anybody have an example of an early (or even late) straight-faced use of an adverb "balls out" referring to that gadget with the balls?

: My references don't have this phrase, but my husband says the device was called a flyball governor and it used to be common in discussions of feedback loops. (When it spins faster, it makes the engine slow down.) That might help in searching.

It's said that "balls to the wall" has the same origin as "balls out." I don't have an authoritative source for this.