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The meaning and origin of the expression: Ball and chain

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Ball and chain


A 20th century slang term, meaning wife.


The allusion being to the presumption that a man's wife held him back from doing the things he really wanted to.

ball and chainThis, of course, refers back to the actual ball and chain, which was a heavy metal ball secured to a prisoner's leg by means of a chain and manacle. The ball and chain was in use in both Britain and the USA by the early 19th century (and possibly much earlier). The earliest citation in print is from The Times, January 1819:

"They sentence the prisoner to receive 50 stripes on his bare back, and be confined with a ball and chain to hard labour for 12 calendar months."

Soon after, in 1821, is this US reference from the Ohio Repository, Canton, Ohio:

"Bread and water, the ball and chain, and even whipping, the convicts prefer to the solitary cell."