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According to this article's first two sentences (which I find a bit confusingly formulated), there are two different meanings to the expression.

  1. No way out and no options other than a single, not pleasant one.
  2. Full speed ahead, all-in, whole-range approach.

After reading/googling, I'm unclear on which of the meanings is the correct one. Furthermore, I realize that it's possible that both are valid, in which case I wonder if there are geographic relation to which is the most commonly used. Is there a trend of popularity (raising/dropping) for any of them?

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marked as duplicate by phenry, choster, tchrist, FumbleFingers, oerkelens Jul 24 at 15:38

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

    
This question has already been asked and answered: english.stackexchange.com/questions/153114/… –  Kevin Workman Jul 23 at 14:27
    
@KevinWorkman Please re-read the question I'm asking and compare it to the link you've presented. It's not the same question at all. I'm going to jumpt to a conclusion here and suggest that getting a hit for the search terms doesn't constitute that it's the same question. I can't know for sure how much effort you've put into the comparison but (a) it's hardly difficult to see the difference, once one does more than just take a look in the "related" column and (b) it appears to be a common phenomenon which, unintentionally, sabotages the purpose of the site. Nobody wants to see that. :) –  Konrad Viltersten Jul 23 at 19:29
    
@Konrad It would be a good idea to explain in the question, not in comments why this question is not a duplicate of the other. You will need to be absolutely explicit about what is asked here that is not covered there. –  Andrew Leach Jul 23 at 19:43
    
@KonradViltersten Not sure why you seem to be offended, but the question that you asked is indeed answered at the duplicate. I didn't downvote or vote-to-close, so no need to get all bristly. I just remembered seeing it a few weeks ago, did a search for it, and thought I'd provide it for your research. Sorry if that seems out of line to you. –  Kevin Workman Jul 23 at 22:09
    
@AndrewLeach I understand how you figure but I believe you're operating under the false assumption that I did post a question that's a duplicate. I didn't. I find it backwards to put responsibility on me to motivate why a non-dupe is a non-dupe, just because someone else doesn't put in effort, actually understanding the contents, wrongly assumes that the "related" wall is an oracle etc. Such conduct actually destroys the site. Please note that the actual question's been answered, so it was understandable what I meant. :) –  Konrad Viltersten Jul 24 at 19:07

2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

The etymology of this phrase is:

First attested in the 1960s in the context of aviation. Probably coined by pilots whose throttle levers had round, ball-like tops and for whom putting the "balls to the wall" (the firewall of the aircraft) meant making the aircraft fly as quickly as possible.

As we see, the first meaning is direct:

Full throttle; (at) maximum speed.

The other meaning will be:

(With) maximum effort or commitment.

2006, Michael D. Brown, Testimony before the US Senate Homeland Security Committee:

I told the staff...the day before the hurricane struck that I expected them to cut every piece of red tape, do everything they could, that it was balls to the wall, that I didn't want to hear anybody say that we couldn't do anything—to do everything they humanly could to respond.

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According to the following sources your second definition seems to be more appropriate:

According to Ngram the expression seems to be a bit more popular in AmE rather then in BrE.

Balls to the wall:

extreme; "all out".

  • This is the last game of the season, boys! So, it's balls to the wall!!
  • That guy went balls to the wall to win that race.

Balls to the wall:

term used by pilots. when accelerating quickly, the throttle is pushed all the way to the panel and the throttle lever (ball) actually touches the panel (wall). Hence, balls to the wall.

Etymology

First attested in the 1960s in the context of aviation. Probably coined by pilots whose throttle levers had round, ball-like tops, and for whom putting the "balls to the wall" (the firewall of the aircraft) meant making the aircraft fly as quickly as possible. Probably not, as sometimes suggested, from railroad jargon.

Source: http://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/balls_to_the_wall

Other theory of the term's etymology:

On old steam engines, there was a governor device that had an arm with two steel balls on each end. This spun around, and as the engine went faster the centrifugal force spun the balls higher and higher. When the engine reached its maximum safe power, the balls would be spinning fast and high. When they reached a specific height, a spring would shut down steam and not allow the engine to blow up (over speed itself). So "balls to the wall" means: as fast as the engine possibly can go.

Source: http://onlineslangdictionary.com/meaning-definition-of/balls-to-the-wall

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