I know the phrase means "going all out" but I can't figure out what it literally means or where it originates from.

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    It's my understanding that it's a reference to the centrifugal governors that were common on steam engines. When the balls spin faster, they separate and point outward. A related phrase is "going balls out". Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 14:53

3 Answers 3


Wiktionary sez:

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.

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    That would only be one ball, not two. Just sayin'.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 18:13
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    This aircraft begs to differ: maam.org/airshow/r4d_cockpit.htm Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 18:22
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    Actually, the balls are in a fairly neutral position in the main photo, and they are pushed toward the firewall in the control quadrant close-up. But the reason for the photo is to show you that planes can have two throttle levers. Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 18:48
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    While this may be true, I have a hard time believing that the phrase does not refer to testicles. This etymology sounds sanitized. Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 22:42
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    It doesn't have to be one or the other -- while the literal interpretation of the phrase would refer to the throttle levers and firewall, giving a coherent meaning to the phrase, it's entirely possible that it only caught on because of the double entendre. Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 22:47

I think it comes from racing or aircraft when you have the engine going as fast as possible and your whole body is pressed back against the seat and wall of the cockpit...including the 'balls'.

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    I'll vote for that. Despite any semblance of proof, I want to believe that this is the correct origin.
    – David M
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 18:09

If one's testicles are against a wall surely one cannot push them any further? Doesn't that mean you're at the limit?

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