balls to the wall

The phrase balls to the wall, meaning an all-out effort, comes from the world of aviation. On an airplane, the handles controlling the throttle and the fuel mixture are often topped with ball-shaped grips, referred to by pilots as (what else?) balls. Pushing the balls forward, close to the front wall of the cockpit increases the amount of fuel going to the engines and results in the highest possible speed.

The earliest written citation is from 1967, appearing in Frank Harvey’s Air War—Vietnam:

You know what happened on that first Doomsday Mission (as the boys call a big balls-to-the-wall raid) against Hanoi oil.1

And:

You’re in good hands with Gen. Disosway as long as you go in on those targets balls to the wall. Never mind the brownie points.2

Several Korean War-era veterans have written me noting their use of the term during their service. The phrase may very well date to this earlier war, although we have no written evidence for it.

There are two common misconceptions about the phrase. The first is that it is a reference to a part of the male anatomy.

The second is that it arose in railroad work. A speed governor on train engines would have round, metal weights at the end of 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 either of these two stories. No use of the phrase is known to exist prior to the mid-1960s, and all the early cites are from military aviation.


1Frank Harvey, Air War--Vietnam (New York: Bantam Books, 1967), 144.

2Ibid., 150.

baker’s dozen

The popular tale behind this phrase’s origin is that a medieval law specified the weight of loaves of bread and any baker who shorted a customer was in for dire punishment. So, bakers would include a thirteenth loaf with each dozen just to be safe. The story is partly true. There was such a law, but the practice of adding an extra loaf to the dozen had nothing to do with fear of punishment.

The law in question was the Assize of Bread and Ale, first promulgated in England in 1266. There are various versions of the law promulgated over the years, but they all regulated the size and price of loaves of bread that were sold on the market. During years of good harvests, bakers could make more bread than they could sell locally, so they would sell the excess loaves to hucksters, or middlemen. But since the size and price were strictly regulated, the only way for these distributors to make money would be for the baker to give them extra loaves. The baker would give the huckster a thirteenth, or vantage, loaf for each dozen. This extra loaf provided the profit for the middleman.

The practice of adding the thirteenth loaf is older than the phrase. The phrase only dates to 1599.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Harvard Law School Library)

bailiwick

Bailiwick is an old legal term from England, a compound of bailie + -wick. Bailie is an obsolete form of bailiff, an administrative official, from the Middle English and Old French bailli; -wick is from the Old English wic, meaning dwelling, farm, town, or enclosed space.

The term bailiwick dates to the mid-15th century and originally meant the district under a bailiff’s jurisdiction. The legal sense meaning a jurisdiction is still current. The term was brought to America in the mid-19th century, where it generalized to mean a person’s sphere of knowledge or expertise.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

by and large

By and large is nautical in origin, originally referring to the sailing qualities of a vessel.

To sail by the wind is to sail directly into the wind (or as close into the wind as is possible). A large wind is one that comes from the stern quarter (on a square-rigged vessel, if the wind is directly astern only the rear sails catch it, therefore the most favorable wind comes from slightly off one side where it will fill all the sails). Therefore, a ship that sails well by and large sails well in all directions.

The nautical sense dates to 1669, from Samuel Sturmy’s Mariner’s Magazine:

Thus you see the ship handled in fair weather and foul, by and learge.

The general sense, meaning in one direction in another, in all ways, on the whole, was evident by 1833, in John Neal’s Down-Easters:

A man who feels rather perplexed on the whole, take it by and large.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

buy the farm

To buy the farm is to die, usually in a battle or aircraft accident. It has spawned several false explanations of its origin. The phrase as we know it dates to the 1950s, but has its roots in older variants. The farm in the phrase is a metaphor for a grave, the last plot of land a soldier will own.

The earliest variant is the phrase to buy it. From W. N. Glascock’s Naval Sketch-Book in 1825:

Never mind, in closing with Crappo, if we didn’t buy it with his raking broadsides.

Crappo in this quotation is a slang word for the French, especially used in reference to French sailors.

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busman’s holiday

A busman’s holiday is a day off from work spent doing the things one does on the job. It comes from the idea that a bus driver would spend his holiday traveling somewhere on a bus. The phrase dates originally referred to horse-drawn buses. From the English Illustrated Magazine of 1893:

I shall indeed take a holiday soon,...but it will be a “Busman’s Holiday.”

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

bunk

Bunk is short for bunkum, which in turn is an alteration of Buncombe, the name of a county in North Carolina. In the year 1820, the Missouri Question, whether Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a slave or a free state, was being hotly debated in Congress. Near the end of the debate and amidst calls from the floor to have a vote, Felix Walker, the representative from Buncombe rose to speak. Walker launched into an irrelevant and seemingly interminable speech. When asked to desist, he replied, “I am talking for Buncombe,” and continued on.1

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bumper crop

To the modern ear this phrase sounds odd. How did bumper become associated with agriculture?

The original bumper was a large cup, filled to the brim with wine, and used for toasting. Why it is called a bumper is a bit uncertain, but could be from the idea of knocking such glasses together during a toast. From Thomas D’Urfey’s Madam Fickle of 1676:

Full Bumpers crown our Blisses.

Bumper eventually came to refer to anything large or abundant. From Gentleman’s Magazine of 1759:

In some of the midland counties, anything large is called a bumper, as a large apple or pear.

By 1885 it was associated with crop, from the Times of London of 2 October:

The floods will have the effect of giving a “bumper” rubbee crop.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

bug

Most of us have encountered bugs in hardware or software, those defects that prevent computers from operating properly. But the term existed long before the age of computers. It has its origins in the shop of perhaps the greatest innovator of the industrial age.

The term was coined in the lab of Thomas Edison, perhaps by the man himself. Edison is the first to be recorded using the term in 1878. From Matthew Josephson’s 1959 Edison: a Biography which quotes the man himself:

“Bugs"—as such little faults and difficulties are called—show themselves and months of anxious watching, study and labor are requisite before commercial success...is reached.1

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Buckley’s chance

Buckley’s chance is an Australian phrase meaning a slim chance or no chance at all. It is first cited in 1898 in the Sydney Bulletin of 17 December:

“Devil shoot me!” muttered Tim..."if I see Buckley’s chance of a shindy tonight.”1

The origin is unknown, but there are two common explanations.

The more likely of the two is that it is a bit of wordplay stemming from the name of the Melbourne department store of Buckley and Nunn, founded in 1851. The term is often phrased as there are two chances, Buckley’s and none.

A less likely, but more colorful, explanation is that it is a reference to William Buckley, a convict who escaped from Port Phillip prison in 1803 and lived with the Aborigines for 32 years before surrendering to authorities and obtaining a pardon. The problem with this explanation is the passage of time between his adventure and the appearance of the phrase and that fact that he did pretty well for himself in the bush. It’s not the story of a man with no chance.2

And it is possible for both of these to be true—with William Buckley giving rise to Buckley’s chance and it subsequently being punned into two chances Buckley’s and none, playing on the department store name.


1Oxford English Dictionary, Buckley’s, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 27 Dec 2008 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50028692>.

2Sydney J. Baker, The Australian Language, Sun Books, 1970 (Melbourne: MacMillan, 1966), 269.

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