Reprieve From Ignominy

Posted by Bob on March 29, 2002

In Reply to: Reprieve From Ignominy posted by Barney on March 29, 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.

: : : I'd have thought that "balls to the wall" was far more likely to be of anatomical derivation than "balls out" - (mind you, I also thought the latter was anatomical). Sheer speculation, but I had imagined that "balls to the wall" referred to the effect of accelerative G-Forces squashing a pilot or race car driver back into his seat. Interestingly enough, I expect there's little doubt that the similar-seeming but presumably unrelated phrase "to nail someone's balls to the wall" is of anatomical provenance.

: : : I see the erudite jury's still out on "balls out". Despite my earlier belief, the steam engine solution felt like hot favourite as soon as I saw the post - though you'd think there would be numerous 18th and certainly 19th century references if this were the case. I wonder if it'll turn out to be a mini 9 yards?

: : People, people. The steam engine explanation is clearly one of those "polite" fabrications somebody invented so as not to offend someone. It doesn't make the slightest bit of sense: the phrase is about recklessness, about being oblivious to harm and proceeding without the usual protect-yourself conventions. The flyball governor is a governor, for goshsakes. It's function is to protect the machine by slowing it down, to keep it under control and prevent reckless, ungoverned damage. Here's my theory: This is very much a 9-yardism: John Q. Reckless talks to his pals about going balls out, investing his life savings in pork belly futures, when his sainted mother walks into the billiard room. He covers his verbal impropriety by inventing this steam engine story, and mom repeats it to her friends at the Canasta game, who perpetuate it because they also buy into cement mixers, kilts, machine gun belts, or whatever a friend of a friend "knows." Yours cautiously....

: Governors do not make engines slow down as their rotation speed increases - irrespective of the recollections of anybody - rather they represent the engine speed' and can be adjusted to limit it to a safe maximum. To adjust a governor to maximum 'ball out", is to set it to deliver the maximum possible power/speed that the engineer/'adjuster of the governor' believes the engine can deliver this side of some sort of mechanical failure that may destroy it.

: Now while one may respect the erudition of some of the contributors to this forum it is plainly obvious that none feel any embarrassment whatever at parading their complete ignorance of scientific or technical matters but would feel mortified if they misquoted the words of some long dead second rate poet - strange old world don't you think?

You're working very hard to make this phrase technical and scientific, but it's not convincing. Let's line up the last thousand people to use the phrase "balls out" and compare what percentage are conversant with antique steam engine technology versus what percentage are conversant with testicles. That's current usage and meaning, one might object, but surely the origin of the phrase comes from those days of yore when flyball governors were everywhere, and testicles had not yet been invented. Let's look at it again: if a governor exists to adjust an engine speed to "limit it to a safe maximum," that's hardly the meaning one intends to communicate with the phrase. The reason a golf cart has a governor is to prevent it from going over 15 miles per hour. It can be adjusted, of course, for a course. If it lacked a governor, some reckless, testosterone-poisoned operators would drive much too fast for conditions, even on hillsides, so their clubs would bounce, and their balls would fall out.