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Here’s a question again in Jeffery Archer’s The Prodigal Daughter. Richard (husband of Florentina Kane, the heroine of the novel) finds in The Wall Street Journal that Jake Thomas, chairman of Lester’s Bank, took a countermeasure to block Richard’s cornering the stock of the bank in an attempt to take over the chairmanship. It goes:

Richard swore uncharacteristically as he left the table and walked toward the phone, leaving his coffee to go cold.

“What did you say?” said Florentina.

Balls,” he repeated, and passed her the paper. She read the news while Richard was dialing.

“What does it mean?”

“It means that even if we do acquire 51% of the present stock, Thomas’s authorized issue of further two million shares make it impossible to defeat him.”

                – The Prodigal Daughter, Page 244.

I don’t know what “balls” means as Florentina asked back to her husband. I looked for definitions of “balls” pertinent to the usage in the above quote in CED, OED, and Merriam-Webster without success.

What does “balls” mean? Is it used casually in daily conversation?

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@Jo Bedard: There's no way such a long-established one-word exclamation could be "short for" much more recent AmE usages involving sucks (which only even started to appear in the 70s, and didn't become widespread until this century). –  FumbleFingers Jul 22 at 15:19
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This is one of those bizarre questions on ESO, where - I have not been able to work out the common thread - the question and answer are incredibly simple. (Question by non-native English speaker: "What is 'balls'?" Answer: "swear word meaning 'bullshit' or 'rubbish.") BUT. For some reason it generates incredibly long answers and commentary!! Why is that? –  Joe Blow Jul 23 at 8:52
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Yoichi, for definitive current cultural use of "balls" (and, perhaps surprisingly, "cock") {ejaculation meaning resignation in face of a screw-up} I direct you to the most popular TV show (by far) in the UK, Top Gear. (I believe it is also very popular in other countries too.) –  Joe Blow Jul 23 at 8:54
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certain years it is the single most-watched non-fiction TV show - on Earth. (Just google, eg topgear.com/uk/car-news/guiness-book-of-records-2012-09-07) I apologise, I can't just now immediately find a list of the current top rating shows on the BBC, in the UK typical articles telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/bbc/10183784/… theguardian.com/media/2012/jan/30/top-gear-5m-viewers –  Joe Blow Jul 23 at 15:28
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Much of this is way off. Balls is testicles. Period. "She/he" has big brass balls", means agression like that brought on by testosterone. "Kicked in the balls", means kicked in the testes. "Got no balls", means unwilling to act in a brave "manly" way, hence "grow some balls" or alternately "grow a pair". "Balls!" is a slightly more vulgar form of "Nuts!". –  Sinthia V Jul 23 at 20:39

3 Answers 3

up vote 27 down vote accepted

"Balls!", and the synonymous "Bollocks!" which is more common in this usage, are essentially just vulgar exclamations usually expressing annoyance regarding a situation, or rejection of something previously said.

In my experience Americans 1 rarely use either of the above. In terms of "vulgarity" it probably falls somewhere between "Dammit!" and "Fuck [it]!", but exactly where is subjective. In terms of semantic content when used as an exclamation, there's no meaningful reference to testicles.


1 See this earlier question for confirmation that balls/bollocks are primarily BrE. Hemmingway often wrote things like "Don't talk balls!", where semantically balls/bollocks = nonsense, but I don't think I've ever heard an American use "[Oh] balls!" as a standalone exclamation (I've encountered AmE [Oh] bollocks!" with various spellings, but it's relatively rare on that side of the pond).

As to "used casually in conversation", that really depends on the social context and the normal vernacular of the speaker. But my guess is that in Archer's context, Richard uses balls because it's slightly less offensive than bollocks, which is more common among speakers who swear habitually (but because Richard doesn't habitually swear he doesn't know his usage is slightly non-standard).

Also note that Florentina has to ask him to repeat the word because she wasn't certain what he'd said. That's partly because even British women rarely hear or use either word (it's a male thing! :)

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I wonder why Jeffry Archer let Richard kane who wants to be the chairman of a New York-based big bank use deliberately not too common nor decent word in this situation. –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 23 at 5:42
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@Yoichi: It's a well-chosen expletive. Saying Bollocks! would be more characteristic of a habitual swearer (and might suggest a "less refined" background). Saying Fuck! would have much the same effect, plus it would stand out to the reader as being far more noticeably "coarse, vulgar". Saying Damn! wouldn't convey Richard's annoyance so strongly. The expletive Archer puts in the mouth of his character has exactly the right connotations, and having it "repeated" in the narrative gives it exactly the right level of emphasis (to a British reader, at least). –  FumbleFingers Jul 23 at 11:37
    
@FumbleFinger. According to OALED, bollocks means 1. u.nonsense. 2 (pl) a man's testicles. 3. exclamation used as a swear word when sb is disagreeing with sth, or when they are angry about sth. If 'balls' and 'bollocks' are the same, I can understand the meaning of 'balls' in the above quote in the way defined in 3. of OALED definitions. –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 23 at 11:53
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@Yoichi Yes, they're the same. Although it literally means testicles, it's just being used as a mild swear word so, as FumbleFingers said, the literal meaning is not relevant semantically (in the same way that "Shit!" as an exclamation has nothing to do with excrement, even though that is its literal meaning). –  starsplusplus Jul 23 at 13:00
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I grew up in Indiana, went to college in Florida, lived in California for fifteen years. In all those places, using "balls" as an interjection was rare to nonexistent, but instead it was used as an anatomical term, or a term for courage. I've only heard Americans say "bollocks" as a British affectation, usually while faking a British accent, or in reference to the Sex Pistols' album. Archer's use might be because he's English, and/or greater use as an expletive in the northeastern US like Mr. Keiter reports. –  joseph_morris Jul 24 at 19:52

A clue is given in the text you quote:

“Balls,” he repeated.

As he's repeated that, there must have been a mention immediately before it. The line which refers to Richard saying something immediately prior to that is

Richard swore uncharacteristically

which gives some indication of the type of exclamation. One can then go to a dictionary.

  1. Testicles.
  2. [mass noun] Courage or nerve.
  3. [mass noun] British Nonsense; rubbish (often said to express strong disagreement).

ODO

It can be seen that sense 3 is getting towards being appropriate, although disagreement may not be entirely correct. Balls can also be used as a swear-word expressing extreme disappointment or annoyance.

Dictionary.com has a fuller definition, from Collins, showing it as an interjection.

balls (bɔːlz)

pl n

  1. the testicles
  2. by the balls so as to be rendered powerless
  3. nonsense; rubbish
  4. courage; forcefulness

interj

    5.  an exclamation of strong disagreement, contempt, annoyance, etc

usage Both its anatomical senses and its various extended senses nowadays have far less impact than they used to, and seem unlikely to cause offence, though some older or more conservative people may object. Interestingly, its use in the sense of courage is exactly paralleled in the Spanish term «cojones»

Collins' usage note indicates that it can be used more or less casually, but because of the anatomical reference it might be unwise to use it in more sensitive company.

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Balls: it is an exclamation of disappointment (interjection).

Richard is disappointed by the fact that they can't defeat Thomas by acquiring 51% of the stock since he will issue 2 million new shares making it impossible to beat him.

Oh balls!!!

  • An expression of dissapointment and or frustration. "Oh balls, I lost my chemistry homework..."

  • (Expression) The exclamation of great discomfort or anger. Usage: Ryan: Hey Adam you broke it Adam: Oh balls...

 

  • As an interjection, the word ‘balls’ is used to show a person’s frustration or distaste at an occurrence, idea, or situation. Though typically many interjections evolve to become more socially acceptable (i.e. ‘fudge’ from the more stigmatized curse word ‘fuck’), the word ‘balls’ does not appear as a tamed down version of a more stigmatized, less socially acceptable word. Etymology : Though originally a phrase referring to male testicles, the word ‘balls’ has evolved into an interjection that demonstrates frustration or distaste.

Source:http://neologisms.rice.edu/index

Source:http://onlineslangdictionary.com

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I guess this is actually the best answer here –  Joe Blow Jul 23 at 8:56
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I agree with @Joe Blow. This is correct. I would add that it can be used interchangeably with 'nuts', however (see my above comment). I never thought I would worry so much about the grammar of a sentence with a synonym for 'cojones' in it. Lol. –  Sinthia V Jul 23 at 20:45

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