Be on the ball with the origins of phrases

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

My topic today may seem a bit ribald, but I’m sure you’ll have a ball with it. It’s about monkey business with the origins of phrases, and how to make sure you stay on the ball and don’t hit a wall.

People love stories about the origins of words and phrases, but many of them are rather dodgy. A good general rule is: Look it up — on a reliable site such as worldwidewords.org or snopes.com. But if you don’t have immediate access to the web, or the phrase in question isn’t covered on the trustworthy sites, you can still apply a little real-world knowledge to estimate its trustworthiness.

Let’s start with two examples: cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey and balls to the wall. Those might seem rather off-colour, but popular accounts of their origins proclaim them both to be innocent. Let’s try applying our good sense to them.

For the brass monkey, the story often passed around is that on battleships, cannon balls were piled in pyramids on brass plates called monkeys, and when the weather got really cold, the differential shrinkage between the iron balls and the brass plate would cause the balls to dislodge.

For the wall, the story is that the balls in question are the two balls on a fighter pilot’s control sticks and the wall is the firewall between the pilot and the front of the plane — so balls to the wall means with the accelerator control and the ascend/descend control fully forward, putting you in a high-speed attack dive.

What do you think of the monkey story? It sounds convincing — don’t you remember something on a ship being called a “monkey,” and don’t metals shrink by different amounts with the cold? If you dwell on those, you might not stop to think about how steady the deck of a battleship isn’t. Really, balls piled in pyramids on a vessel where dishes slide off tables and shelves if they’re not held in place? And how much is that shrinkage, by the way? Do you have brass fixtures on your door? Do they shrink enough to pull on the screws or wood?

In fact, cannon balls were held in wooden frames so they wouldn’t roll all over. The “monkeys” on ships were “powder monkeys,” boys who carried charges. And a quick look online will tell you that the shrinkage rates of iron and brass are nearly identical — less than a millimetre per metre. As to the expression, earlier versions included references to freezing the tail off a brass monkey and being hot enough to melt the nose off a brass monkey. So the supposed “innocent” origin doesn’t pass the test — those are real monkey testes.

How about the pilots? What do those joysticks look like? If you recall that, sometimes at least, there’s a ball on each … you’re right. You’d be justified in reserving judgment on this one, because it’s so tidy, but the truth is that it’s correct: it came from fighter pilots in Korea and Vietnam. So that means it isn’t a crude reference? Heh. Please. These are military men. You can feel sure the double entendre was intended.

The army and the navy are often credited with popular turns of phrase. As we have seen, the credit is sometimes due and sometimes not. Another case where it is not due is on the ball. As you may know, at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich there is a red ball that is raised just before 1:00 pm each day and dropped exactly on the hour. It is bruited about that sailors who held fast to this time were said to be on the ball. It may seem reasonable enough; sailors did in fact need to use it to make sure their chronometers were accurate. But the historical record doesn’t support it. The phrase first showed up associated with baseball. Ah, yes, sports: a third field often credited — sometimes rightly — with the origins of phrases.

If that time ball sounds like an old acquaintance not to be forgot, then you are surely thinking of the one used in Times Square at New Year. Time balls for giving the hour to those at a distance were common in the 1800s, but their modern survival is mainly ceremonial, now most often associated with parties. Such as New Year’s balls? Well, yes, but that kind of ball — which we see also in have a ball (and yes, that’s where that phrase comes from) — may have music, but it does not require spheres. It comes from Latin ballare, “dance,” which we see in modern Spanish bailar, among others. A quick look in an etymological dictionary will tell you that.

And so we see you can truly have a ball with etymology — and, with good research, you can have another one, too.

4 responses to “Be on the ball with the origins of phrases

  1. Who knew that monkey balls and ball shrinkage could be so interesting?😉

  2. I hope I get a reply for this one James. These days, almost every noun I know is being used as a verb just because “people can”. I don’t really understand why people have to be creative in this way instead of coining a new word that would mean the same. Like “Whatsapp me when you reach home” and Neil DeGrasse Tyson had used Mars as a verb. Are we allowed to do that?

    • There will always be people who like playing with languages, and different ways of playing will be more and less popular over time. It may disrupt the tidiness of the language, but… well, that’s the point. People do it precisely because “you’re not supposed to.” The most I can say is, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it. The formal language is slow to change. But incidentally, though some kinds of play with verbing are more popular now, verbing is one of the time-honoured processes that have made English what it is: https://sesquiotic.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/this-business-of-verbing/

  3. Many idioms are formed by a process of Phono-Semantic Matching (PSM). Most of these are formed by the transliteration of a normal foreign word or phrase into similar sounding words that already exist in the target language. The resulting idiom retains the meaning of its foreign source. Sometimes the target language idiom is subsequently translated to other languages.

    Occasionally the foreign source is both transliterated and translated into the target language idiom. When you find the source of such an idiom, you can be relatively certain that you have the right source. Examples include the English idioms “break a leg” and (cold enough to) “freeze the balls off a brass monkey.”

    You can see a more detailed description of idiom formation via PSM at
    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/2033458/Hebrew/Idiom_Formation_via_Transliteration.docx
    and a collection of examples including “break a leg’ and “brass monkey” at
    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/2033458/Hebrew/Idioms.doc

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s