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Q From Graham C Reed, South Africa: I’ve been wondering where the expression balls-up comes from.

A Though now widely known in the English-speaking world, this is in its immediate origin a low British slang term for a bungled or badly carried out task or action, a messed-up or confused situation, or a complete foul-up. It came into the language from World War One services’ slang:

“What do you make of it, sergeant?” he asked. “I don’ know what to make of it. What the bloody hell do you make of it, yourself? After all, that’s what matters. I suppose we’ll come through all right; we’ve done it before, so we can do it again. Anyway, it can’t be more of a bloody balls-up than some o’ the other shows ’ave been.

The Middle Parts of Fortune, by Frederic Manning, 1929. The novel is set on the Western Front in France during the battles of the Somme in World War One, which Frederic Manning — an Australian — experienced during his service with the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. The text as he wrote it could not be published in his lifetime because of the authentic bad language it contained. Show here is services slang for a military engagement, battle or raid.

The obvious implication is of a testicular association, which is why it is regarded as coarse or low slang, though quite how it might have come about is unclear. As soon as one begins to look into matters more deeply, that origin becomes more unlikely still.

The verbal construction, ball up — in much the sense of its British slang counterpart, though not regarded as coarse — turns out to have a long history in the US. Jonathan Lighter has recorded examples in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang from the middle of the nineteenth century. The 1856 revised edition of Benjamin Hall’s A collection of College Words and Customs records that ball up then meant failing a recitation or examination. From no later than the 1880s it implied becoming mixed up or confused in some way. A reference to the noun ball-up, meaning a confused or muddled situation, is in the US publication Dialect Notes in 1900. It is plausible that balls-up, though a British expression, derives from this older American one.

Having said all that, there’s no obvious clue from the examples where it might come from. Indeed, Professor Lighter remarks at the beginning of the entry that the term’s “semantic development is obscure”, which is academic-speak for “I haven’t a clue, either”. The ball might be of string or yarn that has become snarled up, or perhaps it refers to crumpling a piece of paper into a ball, or conceivably it comes from some incident in college sports. Sylva Clapin, in his New Dictionary of Americanisms of 1902, suggested an origin in the balling up of a horse in soft, new fallen snow, when a snowball forms within each shoe and stops the horse moving.

You can take your pick from these — there’s no more evidence for one than another.

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Page created 14 Apr 2007; Last updated 16 Oct 2010