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.


  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?

  • 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 '18 at 0:55
  • OED gives an earlier citation: 1921.
    – Laurel
    Feb 16 '18 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 '18 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 '18 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 '18 at 7:39

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.

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