If you ever played the video game Duke Nukem, you might remember his signature catchphrase, “I’ve got balls of steel.” This use of balls features widely in the English lexicon, as in:
- big balls
- break my balls
- have (someone) by the balls
So it’s understandable that when you encounter a phrase or idiom with “balls” in it, the cojones are a go-to cognate. But that can lead one astray. Take, for example, “balls to the wall,” meaning to be racing flat-out. This comes to us from aviation, where the throttles are topped with knobs and are pushed fully forward for maximum power.
In a similar case, the phrase “going balls-out” refers to a type of mechanical governor that works like a centrifuge, with two arms ending in steel balls. At maximum speed, the balls swing fully outward and act as a brake to prevent an engine from overheating. But you can see why most people would associate it with free-balling. [h/t @WillotheGlen]
Nautical etymologies are frequently suspect, and a classic case is “freeze the balls off a brass monkey.” You’ll commonly encounter an explanation that goes along these lines: A “monkey” was a metallic frame on the deck of a warship that held a pyramidal stack of cannonballs. In freezing weather, the brass frame would contract and squeeze the lowest balls in the stack, causing the pile to fall down.
As the guys on Car Talk would say, this is bo-oh-oh-oh-gus.
First, the OED has no record of the term “monkey” or “brass monkey” used this way. Second, we know that warships didn’t store cannonballs on the deck, but kept them below out of the elements in racks, more akin to how balls are stored in bowling alleys. And third, a pyramid of cannonballs on the rolling deck of a wooden ship is a laughably bad idea.
In literature, in the period circa 1850–1930, we find examples of “blow the nose off a brass monkey,” “shave the whiskers off a brass monkey,” “freeze the tail off a brass monkey,” and Thomas Wolfe wrote “It would freeze the balls off a brass monkey — that’s how cold it gets.” It’s looking pretty solid that we’re talking testicles here.
But what’s the “brass” thing about? Michael Quinion of World Wide Words tracks it down to the carving of the three wise monkeys at the Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō. In Japan, this is something like the Mona Lisa. Throngs of tourists swarm to see it year ’round. And, similarly, if you make the trek, you’ll be disappointed to discover the carving’s about the size of a toaster oven.
However, it’s a staple at souvenir shops, and the thinking here is that sailors and travelers came back with brass versions that are still popular today. This, then, is a case of a somewhat rude expression given a polite etymology. And that leads us to the title of this entry.
Just as the word “belly” used to be considered vulgar, so too was the word “guts.” In the early 1900s, as an acceptable euphemism for “gutsy play,” a football coach named John Wilce came up with “intestinal fortitude.” Later, Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean, who was notorious for verbal gaffes and malapropisms, in a broadcast said “I’ll tell ya’ why Eddie Lopat gets ’em out. It ain’t his natural stuff, he couldn’t break a wind-er pane, but he’s got testicle fortitude.” Sort of like the Yogi Berra of his day.
Anyway, it’s always funny to see someone get one in the yarbles.
I believe the etymology of “balls to the wall” also comes from fly-ball governors on steam engines. At least, that’s what the old people told me when I was young.
Click on the link I provided and you’ll see a video of that exact mechanism in action.
It seems far more likely to me that the archetypes of the brass monkey were the multitudes of brass statues of Hanuman encountered by the British in India. Many of those brass statues were likely to have been bought and returned to Europe as souvenirs. Japan was not opened like an oyster by Americans until 1854. Before that there would have been very little experience of Japan by Europeans nor their colonies.
Herman Melville’s “Omoo: a narrative of adventures in the South Seas” was published in 1847. A Cockney character has a hyperbolical phrase: “It was ‘ot enough to melt the nose h’off a brass monkey.”
Hookanit Bee published a selection of poems called “Flotsam and Jetsam: A Cargo of Christmas Rhyme” in London in 1853. “The Rose of Bassora” includes the lines:
Her figure was fine, and her face was divine,
In profile the rarest Circassian:
While her fingers and feet were so cruelly neat,
They’d have stirred a brass monkey to passion.