balls to the wall

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English[edit]

Etymology[edit]

A Cessna 172's throttle and mixture plungers, white and red "balls" respectively.
Throttle quadrant of a Boeing 747

"Balls to the wall" was probably first attested to in the 1960s in the context of aviation. Aircraft have up to three controls per power-plant: throttle control; mixture control, in aircraft with reciprocating power plants; and propeller RPM control, in aircraft with a variable speed propeller. These controls can be either plungers that you push the ball end into the firewall for maximum power setting, or a lever with a ball top that you push upwards towards the firewall for maximum power setting. Thus, putting "balls to the wall" gives the aircraft the maximum power output for takeoff. It probably does not originate from railroad jargon as some have previously claimed.[1]

Adverb[edit]

balls to the wall (not comparable)

  1. (US, idiomatic, slang) Full throttle; (at) maximum speed. [since the 1960s]
  2. (US, idiomatic, slang) (With) maximum effort or commitment. [since the 1960s]
    • 2006, Michael D. Brown, Testimony before the US Senate Homeland Security Committee:
      I told the staff...the day before the hurricane struck that I expected them to cut every piece of red tape, do everything they could, that it was balls to the wall, that I didn't want to hear anybody say that we couldn't do anything—to do everything they humanly could to respond.

References[edit]

  1. ^ David Wilton, Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends: The second of these alleged railroad phrases is the phrase balls to the wall, meaning [making] an all-out-effort. Like balling the jack, this phrase is often thought to have arisen from railroad work. The speed of the governor on train engines had round, metal weights at the end of the arms. As the speed increased, the spinning balls would rise — being perpendicular to the walls at maximum speed. But there is no evidence to support this story. No use of the phrase is known to exist prior to the mid-1960s, and all the early cites are from military aviation, not railroads.
  • 1967, Current Slang, volumes 2-5 (published by the University of South Dakota Department of English): balls to the wall, adj. Putting out maximum effort.