2

Green's Dictionary of Slang has this to say about the phrase "ball and chain."

(orig. US black) one’s wife or regular girlfriend; thus ball-and-chained, married.

However, the earliest citations provided in GDoS are from white fiction writers.

  • 1924 [US] Hecht & Bodenheim Cutie 62: So this is the way you have been deceiving me! [...] with a ball and chain waiting for you at home.

  • 1928 [US] Hecht & MacArthur Front Page Act I: sheriff: Oh, hello, dear. kruger: Sounds like the ball and chain.

  • 1929 [US] H.C. Witwer Yes Man’s Land 185: ‘Oh, please don’t start a row, Egbert!’ murmurs his ball-and-chain.

Maxwell Bodenheim was a white writer from Mississippi. Ben Hecht was a white Chicago writer, though notably also a journalist with no fear of the underground. As Wikipedia describes,

At the age of 16, Hecht ran away to Chicago, where, in his own words, he "haunted streets, whorehouses, police stations, courtrooms, theater stages, jails, saloons, slums, madhouses, fires, murders, riots, banquet halls, and bookshops."

H.C. Witwer is likewise a white American fiction writer.

I was not able to find any assertions for or against the claim that the phrase was originally from U.S. black culture in other sources, including Farlex, phrases.org, and the Online Slang Dictionary.

Questions:

  1. What evidence is there suggesting that the phrase originated in U.S. black culture?

  2. Are there any earlier citations than the ones from GDoS?

  3. What are the earliest known uses by a black writer?

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  • 1
    I've never read anything to suggest that this idiom originated in black or slave culture. I'd say it was more prison-oriented than slave-oriented.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 16, 2018 at 0:55
  • OED gives an earlier citation: 1921.
    – Laurel
    Feb 16, 2018 at 0:57
  • 1
    Given that ball and chain was a typical method of restraining slaves, it seems quite likely that this might have evolved as slang among their culture. Circumstantial evidence, of course, but it also seems likely it would have evolved primarily as spoken language, and it sadly isn’t surprising that the more literate and educated white authors would put it into print first. Feb 16, 2018 at 2:42
  • 1
    You'll find a lot more depictions of prisoners (typically in striped clothing) with ball and chain.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 16, 2018 at 3:25
  • 1
    @HotLicks - “Gone with the wind” comes to mind when Scarlet O’Hara hires convicted black people on blocks and chains to work for her carpentry because they were payed less than other black people. what year was that?
    – user 66974
    Feb 16, 2018 at 7:39

3 Answers 3

2

There is an earlier reference in OED :

1921 Collier's 25 June 24/3 He deliberately attempts to commit suicide by askin' me ‘How's the ball and chain?’ meanin' my wife.

But the OED also cites an even earlier cross-reference under the 'ball and chain' collocation used in reference to a wife, which cross-reference indicates a meaning within matrimony generally, which may have given rise to the more specific reference to wives :

1855 Defiance (Ohio) Democrat 10 Feb. 1/5 Wives..are less eager to enjoy their independence than to assert it. They do not cast off altogether the ball and chain of their matrimonial bonds, but show themselves so restless, that they keep their legal guardians in a state of constant suspicion and anxiety.

1

The ball and chain goes back to seventeenth and eighteenth century England, when this type of device was used to restrain prisoners from running away (perhaps when engaged in hard labour). It is not difficult to see how this gets extended to be a not very flattering reference by an allegedly henpecked husbands to their wives as restrictions on their freedom of conduct in all sorts of ale ways. I do not think it as all likely that any male slave would be tempted to refer to his wife (if he were even allowed to have one) in this way. It sounds more in keeping with the cockney rhyming slang expression for 'wife' and 'trouble and strife' (or 'trouble' for short). I got the dating from vocabulary.com.

2
  • I think we can all agree that it is a plausible metaphor that a chauvinistic man might think appropriate. But is there any evidence in writing from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that uses the metaphor in this way?
    – Mitch
    Apr 12 at 14:03
  • @Mitch: Not as far as I am aware. It is, as I understand it, the non-metaphorical balls and chains that are referred to in the 17th and 18th century.
    – Tuffy
    Apr 13 at 20:53
1

In volume five of "In Search of Lost Time," The Captive & The Fugitive, Marcel Proust describes having to go back to his mistress, Albertine, "as to a sort of ball and chain to which I was somehow attached." This was first published in 1923 and and would have been written somewhat earlier.

2
  • Are you saying the phrasing was originally French and borrowed through a translation? Or do you think the translator chose 'ball and chain' as the closest corresponding metaphor for some other French wording?
    – Mitch
    Apr 12 at 14:01
  • Per the next post, it seems to have been an appropriated metaphor. I was merely pointing out an early usage that I happened to encounter. I'm not sure whether it is an artefact of translation or not.
    – Mlazenby
    May 17 at 11:24

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