Ball and chain


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Ball and chain'?

A 20th century slang term, meaning wife.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Ball and chain'?

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

This, 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.”

Trend of ball and chain in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.