Balls to the Wall


And now for a brief piece of trivia that some/most of you may already be aware of, considering one of my favorite colorful phrases in the english language, “balls to the wall.” My apologies in advance to those readers who are already aware of the etymology.

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” -Michael Brown, former director of FEMA, in testimony to U.S. Senate 2/10/06 [emphasis mine]

Contrary to common belief and misconception, the phrase has nothing whatsoever to do with potentially uncomfortable proximity of genitalia and walls. It’s origins apparently date back to use in the US Air Force during the Vietnam War, and possibly as far back as the Korean War or earlier. You see, “balls” refers to the balls on top of the throttle control and flight control of an airplane, and the “wall” is the cockpit firewall. Thus, “balls to the wall” would indicate the state where the plane is either pushed into a nose dive and summoned to 100% throttle, for example in a situation where extreme evasive maneuvers are required.

Similar to “pedal to the metal,” “balls to the wall” indicates a condition of maximum effort and intensity. But, of course the connotations and nuances of the term are so much more than that. Like all phrases of this kind, it really isn’t possible to succinctly and effectively rephrase it in other language — that’s the reason it exists and is in use in the first place.

  1. #1 by anne on April 16, 2007 - 8:29 pm

    is there a similar explanation for “balls in [your] purse”?

  2. #2 by benoc on April 17, 2007 - 10:01 am

    Honestly, I cannot remember the first place I heard that phrase. It was recent, perhaps in some movie or something? I will stew on it.