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What Does "Balls to the Walls" Mean?

By Alicia Sparks
Updated May 23, 2024
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Usually, the English saying “balls to the walls” refers to approaching or handling a situation with a great level of attention, force, or urgency. The expression is thought to date to the United States military aviation involvement in the Vietnam War, though some people believe it can be traced back further to the Korean War. Regardless of origin, most sources do agree the expression is related to certain aviation terms and actions. Like many idiomatic expressions, this one can be translated into everyday life.

An airplane throttle, or power lever, is a type of stick with a ball-shaped topper positioned behind the cockpit’s firewall, similar to how a regular passenger vehicle’s gearshift is often positioned behind the vehicle’s dashboard. The throttle controls the airplane’s power level by controlling how much air or air/fuel mixture the cylinders receive. The closer to the firewall the pilot pushes the throttle, the more power the airplane has. When a pilot wants full power, he pushes the throttle all the way forward, toward the firewall. Therefore, when pilots push their throttles all the way forward to achieve full power, they are said to have pushed the balls to the walls.

Some experts claim the idiom originated during the Vietnam War, and was first recorded in 1969 by United States Air Force cadets. Some veterans have claimed to have used the saying during the Korean War, so it is possible the idiom dates to the 1950s. Since “balls out,” a similar saying with a similar meaning was used during World War II, it is likely “balls to the walls” did originate among military aviation personnel. Going further back, the variation “balls out” might have originated in the 18th or 19th century, when stationary steam engines were common. A stationary steam engine features a pivot with two iron balls, which acts as the throttle and is moved outward, or “balls out,” in order to increase the speed.

These days, when a person does something in a way described as being “balls to the walls,” it typically means he does it with great force or effort. Sometimes, it means he has approached the situation or chosen a course of action that is considered dangerous. Similar to many English sayings, this idiom can be applied to a variety of personal and professional life situations. For example, a team of paramedics might respond to an accident scene in a “balls to the walls” way, or an Olympic track runner might train in a manner considered “balls to the walls.” The saying can even apply to students who are pulling all-nighters to study for exams, write research papers, or prepare presentations.

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Discussion Comments

By anon1005621 — On Oct 08, 2021

I can assure you the phrase did not originate with the band Accept. It means pushing something to the extreme, and probably has been around a long time. Longer than Accept will be around.

By anon1004475 — On Feb 20, 2021

Balls out for steam and governor actions. Balls to the wall is throttle knobs to the firewall, or full forward, i.e. full throttle full power. It's like pedal to the metal, only aeronautical.

By anon991797 — On Jul 19, 2015

Before aviation, "Balls to the wall" meant "Full Steam ahead" when steam engine governors were pushed to the limit, and were constructed with a spinning shaft, inside a cylinder, as where the balls rose from center shaft, toward the wall of the cylinder, allowing for higher speed, the cylinder walls prevented the governor from allowing too much speed which would result in catastrophic results. Another older theory is war ships of old with cannon balls in the hulls, while at full speed, and swaying in the waves, would have cannon balls roll across lower hull hold all the way to the walls, hence balls to the wall.

By Vincenzo — On Aug 25, 2014

@Soulfox -- I don't think that is a very common interpretation of that phrase. Oh, I know where you got it -- it's kind of a 1980s, heavy metal kind of interpretation that took hold thanks to a song by the band Accept.

Still, I don't think you will find a lot of people who will associate that phrase with the meaning your supplied. Of course, I could be wrong...

By Soulfox — On Aug 24, 2014

I have also heard this expression used to describe someone in great peril (I will let you reckon out the mental imagery on that one). I suppose it just goes to show you that phrases can evolve over time so they have more than one meaning.

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