Why we say "balls to the wall."

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 10 2006 6:12 PM

Balls in the Air

Where does the expression "balls to the wall" come from?

In testimony before a Senate oversight committee today, former FEMA headman Michael Brown blamed the Department of Homeland Security for the government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina. "I told the staff … that I expected them to cut every piece of red tape, do everything they could, that it was balls to the wall," Brown testified. A skeptical Sen. Norm Coleman responded: "Can you show me ... your very clear directives to go, quote, 'balls to the walls,' to clear up this situation, to fix it?" Where does the expression "balls to the wall" come from?

Somewhat disappointingly, it has nothing to do with hammers, nails, and a particularly gruesome way of treating an enemy. The expression comes from the world of military aviation. In many planes, control sticks are topped with a ball-shaped grip. One such control is the throttle—to get maximum power you push it all the way forward, to the front of the cockpit, or firewall (so-called because it prevents an engine fire from reaching the rest of the plane). Another control is the joystick—pushing it forward sends a plane into a dive. So, literally pushing the balls to the (fire)wall would put a plane into a maximum-speed dive, and figuratively going balls to the wall is doing something all-out, with maximum effort. The phrase is essentially the aeronautical equivalent of the automotive "pedal to the metal."

Advertisement

The expression is first found in military-aviation sources that date from the Vietnam War, and it was recorded in the slang of U.S. Air Force Academy cadets in 1969. Although no evidence from the period has come to light, Korean War veterans have also reliably claimed to have used the expression in the 1950s. An earlier parallel is balls-out, in the same sense, which is found in military-aviation sources that date from World War II. (The phrase was also painted on the nose of at least one fighter plane.) In both cases it's likely that the possibility of an anatomical interpretation has helped the expressions gain wider use.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

The Explainer thanks Dr. Jeff Underwood and Doug Lantry of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

Jesse Sheidlower, formerly the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, is the president of the American Dialect Society. He is the author of The F-Word.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The End of Pregnancy

And the inevitable rise of the artificial womb.

Doctor Tests Positive for Ebola in New York City

How a Company You’ve Never Heard of Took Control of the Entire Porn Industry

The Hot New Strategy for Desperate Democrats

Blame China for everything.

The Questions That Michael Brown’s Autopsies Can’t Answer

Foreigners

Kiev Used to Be an Easygoing Place

Now it’s descending into madness.

Technology

Don’t Just Sit There

How to be more productive during your commute.

There Has Never Been a Comic Book Character Like John Constantine

Which Came First, the Word Chicken or the Word Egg?

  News & Politics
The Slate Quiz
Oct. 24 2014 12:10 AM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 23 2014 5:53 PM Amazon Investors Suddenly Bearish on Losing Money
  Life
Outward
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM Why Is an Obscure 1968 Documentary in the Opening Credits of Transparent?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 6:55 PM A Goodfellas Actor Sued The Simpsons for Stealing His Likeness. Does He Have a Case?
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 23 2014 11:47 PM Don’t Just Sit There How to be more productive during your commute.
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 23 2014 5:42 PM Seriously, Evolution: WTF? Why I love the most awkward, absurd, hacked-together species.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.