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The meaning and origin of the expression: Balling the jack

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Balling the jack

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Balling the jack'?

The US expression 'balling the jack' is used with several meanings:

1. Going fast and energetically, especially of railroad trains.

2. Having a riotously good time, especially by vigorous dancing.

3. Copulating.

4. Risking everything on a single throw of a dice.

Note: the similar and earlier term 'having a ball', while meaning much the same as 2, isn't related. This derives from the literal "we will be having a ball (that is, a dance) tonight".

What's the origin of the phrase 'Balling the jack'?

When starting to research a phrase which has several meanings the usual course is to determine which came first. With 'balling the jack' that is (probably) the 'going fast' meaning. The reason for the probably is that the first use of the phrase in print are as the title of a popular ragtime song, with lyrics written by Jim Burris, which was issued in 1913:

First you put your two knees close up tight
Then you sway them to the left, then you sway them to the right
Step around the floor kind of nice and light
Then you twist around and twist around with all your might,
Stretch your loving arms straight out into space,
Then you do the Eagle Rock with style and grace.
Swing your foot way 'round then bring it back.
Now that's what I call Ballin' the Jack.

The phrase 'Balling the jack' - meaning and origin.
The origin of the expression 'balling the jack' isn't known, but
we do know that most people first came across it as the title of
the popular 1913 ragtime song.

It doesn't seem likely that Burris coined the term himself but that he took the title from an existing slang expression.

Now we come to the tricky bit. Where and how did that expression come from and what 'jack' was being referred to?

Jack is a difficult word as far as etymologists are concerned. The problem is the bewildering number of things which are called jacks. The Oxford English Dictionary lists about 50 of them. In addition, there are all the uses of the word that refer to the name Jack - Jack Tar, Lumberjack, Black Jack etc, and all the people with the first name Jack. Here's a small list of phrases that refer to 'Jack' - there are many others.

Several suggested jacks have been guessed to be the to be the source of 'balling the jack', but without any evidence to make them likely candidates. Without looking at each jack in turn I'll say at the outset that the front runner is the use of 'jack' as the name of a locomotive in the USA in the early 20th century. This is recorded in Frank C. Brown's Collection of North Carolina Folklore, in a work song of firemen on locomotives, which he collected in 1919:

I got a southern jack,
I got a southern jack,
First thing I do shovel in the coal,
Next thing I do watch the drivers roll,
I got a southern jack,
I got a southern jack,
All aboard on the southern jack!

The derivation of that meaning of jack is that the 'iron horse' was the 'jackass that pulled the wagons'.

The 'balling' part of the phrase also comes from US railroad terminology.

The phrase 'Balling the jack' - meaning and origin.In the 19th and early 20th centuries US railway traffic was controlled by signals using balls on vertical wires, on a kind of flagpole arrangement. If the driver saw a 'high ball' he could start or proceed at speed. This use of the term 'high ball' is recorded in a report in the Chicago Record newspaper, March 1897:

'Milk trains'... have 'rights' over the rails and get nothing but 'high balls.'

'Highballing', and later just 'balling', came to mean 'proceeding at high speed and energy'.

Whether the second meaning above - 'having a riotously good time' also originated from that same source isn't clear. It is quite possible that 'balling' originated independently in the African-American community as a slang term for having a good time and that it is that which was the source of the 1913 song title. The addition of 'male appendage' as one of the myriad meanings of 'jack' would also account for meaning 3 above.

While the railway source is entirely plausible, and the 'proceeding at high speed' meaning is widely used, definitive proof of a railway source is lacking. There is a great deal of printed material in literature and newspapers from the USA in the 19th century but no record has been found of the phrase 'balling the jack' from before 1913. All of the early citations refer to the song. Conversely, if late 19th century railroad workers colloquially used the phrase 'balling the jack' there would have been little reason for them to have written it down.

The 'risking everything on a single throw of a dice' meaning seems to be a simple development of the 'having a ball' meaning, moving from the dance-floor and bedroom to the gaming table.

So, until someone finds a railway related citation from before 1913 or an early example of the use of 'highballing the jack', we can't be sure of the origin.

My money is on the US railroads being where the phrase originated.