Going balls out to explain etymology

Thursday, December 23rd, 2021

When Elon Musk recently mentioned the (apocryphal) origin of the phrase “the whole nine yards” in his interview with Dan Carlin, he also mentioned the origin of “balls to the wall” — which I also assumed I’d posted about before, but I hadn’t:

“Balls to the wall” was probably first attested to in the 1960s in the context of aviation. Aircraft have up to three controls per power-plant: throttle control; mixture control, in aircraft with reciprocating power plants; and propeller RPM control, in aircraft with a variable-pitch propeller. These controls can be either plungers that you push the ball end into the firewall for maximum power setting, or a lever with a ball top that you push upwards towards the firewall for maximum power setting. Thus, putting “balls to the wall” gives the aircraft the maximum power output for takeoff.

Cessna 172's throttle and mixture plungers

Naturally he went on to explain the origin of “balls out” — which I’m shocked I haven’t mentioned earlier, either:

The metal balls of a centrifugal governor are pushed apart to a degree depending on the speed of a rotating shaft, providing negative feedback to the throttle.


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