go ballistic

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The idiomatic usage derives from the second-generation of jet fighters, armed with guided missiles, in the late 1950s into the 1960s, with the informal military sense of fully-powered non-ballistic missiles going ballistic when losing control and assuming a free-fall trajectory, sense 3. But in subsequent usage[1][2][3] the term has often become associated with the intentionally ballistic, suborbital trajectories of long-range, typically nuclear-armed missiles, sense 2.


go ballistic

  1. (idiomatic) To become very angry and irrational.
    1964, Elle James and Pamela Kent, Enemy Lover
    She'd go ballistic, possibly even fling a fireball or two, if she knew Selene had him in her apartment.
    The guy went ballistic when I tried to tell him he couldn't return the socks if the package had been opened.
  2. (aeronautics, space) for a usually rocket powered, predominantly non-glide projectile or aerial vehicle, such as a ballistic missile, to travel to its target partly via unpowered ballistic or quasi-ballistic flight, usually following burnout of its rocket motor
    1978, United States Senate, Part 8 of Fiscal year 1978 authorization for military procurement, research and development, and active duty, selected reserve, and civilian personnel strengths: hearings before the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, Ninety-fifth Congress, first session, on S. 1210
    SRAM is a very flexible weapon. It has a ballistic trajectory. It can be launched and go ballistic into its target for a long range... and it can go short range at very low levels.
  3. (military, slang) for a powered, usually guided missile or other aerial vehicle to travel on an unguided or ballistic trajectory, having lost power, control or guidance
    1976, Robert Frank Futrell, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia-- aces and aerial victories, 1965-1973
    I... fired two AIM-7s in a ripple. One AIM-7 went ballistic. The other guided but passed behind the MIG and did not detonate. Knowing that I was then too close for further AIM-7 firing...
    1986, Alfred Price, Air Battle Central Europe
    In the case of retarded bombs released at too high a speed, the retarding fins might tear away and allow the bomb to go ballistic.
    1983, Michael Skinner, USAFE: A primer of modern air combat in Europe
    Putting something between you and the guidance radar will cause the missile to go ballistic.



  1. ^ Kate Burridge (2004) Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further Observations on the Tangled History of the English Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, page 15: “Of course to go ballistic suggests someone has exploded with rage, but... when missiles go ballistic they don't explode; they actually coast. Ballistic missiles, if I understand correctly, are powered only when ascending, and then free fall...”
  2. ^ William Safire (28 July 1985), “On Language”, in New York Times[1]: “Apparently ballistic has replaced bananas in Pentagon use. The word is more apt than bananas, since it includes the connotation of a missile blazing skyward.”
  3. ^ Rosemarie Ostler (2008) Let's Talk Turkey: The Stories Behind America's Favorite Expressions, Prometheus Books, page 87: “A ballistic missile is guided while taking off but falls freely when in its downward trajectory. Americans were introduced to the term ballistic in the 1950s, when the United States began developing the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system for delivering nuclear warheads over a long range. However, it didn't really become a household word until the early 1980s.... Meanwhile, the missiles inspired the figurative expression go ballistic.