phrases, sayings, proverbs and idioms at
Home button Home | Search the website Search | Phrase Dictionary | Great balls of fire

The meaning and origin of the expression: Great balls of fire

Great balls of fire

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Great balls of fire'?

Other phrases with

An exclamation of surprise or delight.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Great balls of fire'?

'Great balls of fire' originated as an expression in the southern states of the USA, around 1850. It derives from the many biblical references to the presence of God being indicated by a fire. This might be the numerous references to a 'pillar of fire', for example, in Exodus 14:24:

During the last watch of the night the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion.

There are a similarly large number of biblical references to fire being flung down from heaven, for example Revelation 20:9:

And they came up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, and fire came down from heaven and devoured them.

Of course, the southern states of the USA were, as they are still, a focal point of old style Christianity and somewhere that the 427 references to fire in the Old Testament would have been well known.

There are many citations in print of the sun or actual fire being referred to as a 'great ball of fire', for example, this report of the siege of Sebastopol, in The [London] Times, November 1870:

The stars seemed in set in motion by incessant lines of shells coming across the heavens and great balls of fire flashed out on the eye from active cannon mouths.

The figurative use of the expression 'great balls of fire' clearly evokes imagery of something portentous or, as current American terminology would have it, 'awesome'. It wasn't until later in the 19th century, and in the USA, that it began being used that way. Here's an early example from the Iowa newspaper Hawarden Independent, September 1893:

‘Great balls of fire!’ he exclaimed... ‘Can you tell me what that is?’

The expression came to a wider public consciousness with the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, when it was used as an exclamation several times by the lead character Scarlett O'Hara:

Great balls of fire! It's Rhett!

Great balls of fireOf course, the best known use of the phrase is as the title of Jerry Lee Lewis's 1957 hit. The writers of the song, not Lewis in fact but Otis Blackwell and the Georgia born Earl Burroughs, incorporated the southern expression and gave it an euphemistic but clearly lewd connotation. Burroughs chose the stage name Jack Hammer, which was another example of an adoption of an apparently commonplace expression and giving it a risqué sexual twist. The lyrics leave little to the imagination and are a good distance away from the biblical source:

You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain
Too much love drives a man insane
You broke my will, oh what a thrill
Goodness gracious great balls of fire

You kissed me baby, woo, it feels good
Hold me baby, I wanna love you like a lover should
You're fine, so kind I'm gonna tell this world that your mine mine mine mine

I chew my nails and I twiddle my thumbs
I'm really nervous but it sure is fun
Come on baby, you drive me crazy
Goodness gracious great balls of fire

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

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.

Browse phrases beginning with:
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T UV W XYZ Full List