Great balls of fire

We’ve had yet another month of record-breaking temperatures—and a corresponding spike in Google searches for hot as balls,

Google Trends graph for "hot as balls" from January 1, 2004, to August 15, 2016. It shows large spikes at July 2015 and July 2016.

a phrase that’s gotten popular as balls (mostly in the U.S.) in the last ten years or so. Although Urban Dictionary has an entry for the phrase from 2001, it became undeniably mainstream five years later during the heatwave of 2006. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan created this video in response to the scorching weather that year:

(Here’s their 2012 sequel:)

Tagging along with hot as balls is its slightly less popular cousin, cold as balls. You can see them alternating seasonally on Google Trends:

Google Trends graph for "hot as balls" and "cold as balls" from January 1, 2010, to August 15, 2016. There are pronounced spikes of "hot as balls" in June and July and "cold as balls" in January, particularly in 2015 and 2015.

The X as balls construction is interesting, because the set of adjectives that X can be is—for now, anyway—smaller than the set that works with as hell, as shit, or as fuck. You can be polite as fuck or impatient as hell, but polite as balls and impatient as balls, while hilarious, don’t convey the same urgency, extremity, or standard of comparison. With some exceptions, like this quote from The Wire episode “Boys of Summer”—

Det. Thomas ‘Herc’ Hauk: [after Council President Nareese Campbell walks by] Council President’s hot as balls!

hot as balls and cold as balls typically describe actual temperatures and are used less often in figurative senses of hot and cold.

The difference between X as balls and Y as fuck, Y as shit, and Y as hell is that although they all look like similes, only X as balls functions as one. We learned in school that simile is a figure of speech that compares two things using like or as. Although linguists haven’t studied simile as profoundly as they have metaphor, possibly because it seems blander and more straightforward, they have made some nuanced observations that we weren’t taught in junior high English.

Both similes and metaphors have a tenor (usually the subject) and a vehicle (what the subject is compared to). The ground is the quality common to both. In metaphor, the ground is implied. In (as) [adjective] as [noun] similes, the ground is made explicit. So in “The weather’s (as) hot as balls,” weather is the tenor, balls the vehicle, and hot the ground. Simile is figurative, comparing two fundamentally different things, so direct, literal comparisons can’t be similes: “The tumour was as big as a grapefruit,” for example, isn’t a simile because it directly compares the size of the tumour with the size of the grapefruit, and a grapefruit’s bigness isn’t its defining characteristic.

Of all [adjective] as [swearword] constructions, Y as hell is the oldest. We know that Shakespeare used it—in Hamlet:

And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays.

in Othello:

Patience, thou young and rose-lipp’d cherubin,—
Ay, there, look grim as hell!

and in Twelfth Night:

MALVOLIO: I say, this house is as dark as ignorance, though
ignorance were as dark as hell; and I say, there
was never man thus abused. I am no more mad than you
are: make the trial of it in any constant question.

among other works.

It also shows up in the writing of Richard Rolle of Hampole (1290?–1349):

…in nane other thyng fyndes ioy & comforth. In þis degre es lufe stalworth as dede, & hard as hell. (The Commandment)

For the most part, early uses of as hell highlight a feature that is prototypically hellish—hot as hell, dark as hell, deep as hell, terrible as hell—so for several centuries Y as hell had the characteristics of a bona fide simile. But in the earliest twentieth century, its use exploded, and it began admitting adjectives like clever, happy, funny, and scared. Hell had stopped being purely a vehicle for the simile, and as hell took on its present-day intensifying function. Rosamund Moon, who wrote “Conventionalized as-similes in English,” published in the International Journal of Corpus Linguistics (2008), calls as hell an emphatic particle and doesn’t really consider it a simile. In “On simile,” published in Language, Culture, and Mind (2005), authors Israel, Harding, and Tobin say that in (as) X as [vehicle] constructions:

…the source concept [another term for vehicle] can remain almost entirely unspecified without compromising the semantic import of the simile as a whole. For instance, idioms like “as X as anything,” “as X as you want,” “as X as hell,” and “as X as all get out” are essentially conventional formulae for the expression of a superlative judgment by means of an otherwise vacuous comparison.

In other words, that arrangement of words itself, when the vehicle seems like a non-sequitur,  is what carries the connotation of very or extremely.

Unlike as hell, as shit and as fuck were born as emphatic particles, not as similes, probably because they were both dysphemisms for as hell. According to the Google Books corpus and the Corpus of Historical American English, as shit admitted adjectives like sure, funny, vivid, and naked from the outset when it proliferated in writing in the 1950s and ’60s. It never started off as a figurative comparison to feces. As fuck was similarly inclusive from the outset, although it got going a slight bit later.

Which brings us back to as balls. It seems to have begun life not as a euphemism of as hell, as shit, or as fuck but as a simile in its own right—and it’s better that way, because similes, unlike emphatic particles, are truly evocative. If you hear hot as balls, you might picture someone having to unstick a sweaty scrotum from their inner thigh. And it’s easy to imagine sagging wrinkliness when someone says old as balls.

People are beginning to use more unexpected adjectives with as balls. The Corpus of Global Web-Based English has instances of such phrases as hungry as balls, boring as balls, and expensive as balls. The incongruity of these adjectives adds to the humour because we still picture testicles when we encounter the phrases. But if we let as balls go the way of as hell, it’ll eventually be used mainly as an emphatic particle rather than a pure simile, and we’ll inevitably lose some of that evocative imagery.

5 thoughts on “Great balls of fire

  1. Brittany @ a.healthier.happy August 17, 2016 / 3:55 pm

    Great post! I have to chuckle, because my husband and I frequently use both “as balls” and “as shit” more than we should. We do use “as hell” at times, though not nearly as much. It’s really funny to think about it, because they do differ by situation.

    For example, we’ll say something is “slow as balls/shit/hell,” but when it comes to something fast, we usually only say “fast as hell.” (I guess balls and shit aren’t good at hurrying…)

    There are some, like “stupid,” that we only use with hell/shit, but not balls. On the flip side, “smart” would only be used with hell.

    For temperatures, we definitely use “hot as balls” most often, though shit/hell are used too. We actually use “cold” with all three too.

    The whole thing really makes you scratch your head. *shrugs* Moments like this, I genuinely feel bad for those trying to learn and understand English. LOL!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ben Zimmer August 18, 2016 / 1:17 pm

    Coincidentally enough, a friend just posted this on Facebook (from the webcomic Hark a Vagrant):

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Pingback: The Ball Report
  4. sesquiotic August 22, 2016 / 7:45 pm

    A point of interest and a question:
    1. Point of interest: In New Zealand English, there’s an idiom where the expletive is omitted; they don’t say “This is as Kiwi as fuck” or “It’s as sweet as balls” or whatever, they just say “This is Kiwi as” and “It’s sweet as” and so on – i.e., the sentence ends at “as.” You’ll get lots of Google hits for “Kiwi as” especially.
    2. Question: Did you find any evidence that the balls in question were originally attached to a brass monkey? I.e., that the well-known brass monkey idiom is connected?

    Like

    • Iva Cheung August 22, 2016 / 8:06 pm

      No—I’d considered grammargeddonangel’s post (https://stronglang.wordpress.com/2015/02/27/witchs-tits-and-brass-monkey-balls/) on witch’s tits and the balls of a brass monkey when I started looking into X as balls, but I couldn’t find enough evidence to support a connection. So thanks for giving me an excuse to post a link here!

      I don’t doubt that in some speakers’ minds, that idiom is what “cold as balls” would evoke, but there’s pretty good reason to believe that the rise of X as balls occurred independently. If you find evidence to the contrary, please let me know.

      Like

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