What is the origin of the phrase "by the balls"?
October 2, 2008 4:52 PM   Subscribe

What is the origin of the phrase "by the balls" as in: "He's really got you by the balls."?

My mom thinks it is a biblical reference where dudes would grab each other by the balls when they entered into an agreement with each other. Her priest disagrees, so now my mom wants to find out exactly what the origin of that phrase is.

I believe I have placed this question in the correct category.
posted by sciurus to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
That if someone grabs your testicles firmly in their grasp, you are willing to agree to almost anything to get them to let go?

I don't think we need a citation for this one.
posted by smackfu at 4:58 PM on October 2, 2008

Grab someone by the balls .. Real hard. It's ok, no one will think less of you.

Once you've got him by the balls, ask him to do something for you. Doesn't do it? Squeeze. Will he do it now?

Hope this helps.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 4:58 PM on October 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

Does she believe "got you by the short hairs" has something to do with crewcuts?
I applaud your categorization, but I think this is one of the language's more transparent idioms.
got you by the balls = grasped by a part of the anatomy that assures compliance with the grasper, on penalty of unacceptable self-harm.
posted by bartleby at 5:01 PM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

It means what it says - someone has got you by the balls. They are holding your testicles and can control you by exerting all sorts of influence over their wellbeing.
posted by fire&wings at 5:02 PM on October 2, 2008

Oh, we know what is means, we just want to know the SOURCE of the idiom, if there is one.
posted by sciurus at 5:04 PM on October 2, 2008

Your Mum is probably referring to the origin of the word "testify", which was indeed related to testacle-grabbing.

I suspect "by the balls" is too general a phrase to really say "this is/isn't a derivative of testification".
posted by pompomtom at 5:08 PM on October 2, 2008

For what it's worth, the OED has this citation from 1250 as the first use of "balls" in this sense:
"þe maide þat ȝevit hirsilf alle Oþir to fre man oþir to þralle..And pleiit with þe croke and with þe balle, And mekit gret þat erst was smalle."

hee hee
posted by mr_roboto at 5:09 PM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Through a bit of casting about, I'm having a hard time finding the first usage for the phrase "have by the balls" or similar (though I found this for a broader phrase).

My guess, based purely on the long history of animal husbandry, would be that it refers to gelding or neutering animals—you've got a horse under control when you've got him by the balls.
posted by klangklangston at 5:30 PM on October 2, 2008

You might want to check in Genesis 24:2, Abraham says to his "eldest servant," "Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh, and I will make thee swear by the Lord."
posted by any major dude at 6:20 PM on October 2, 2008

Actually, "testify" does not come from ball-grabbing. The meaning of "testis" as "witness" seems to predate the meaning, "testicle." Testify means to be a witness, and that's the etymology offered by the OED. It's not definitively known, but the testicle meaning must have developed by reference to the witness meaning.
posted by grobstein at 7:20 PM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am fairly sure that by the balls has the same canonical reference as "by the nose", which is for controlling livestock.
posted by TomMelee at 7:44 PM on October 2, 2008

I think your mom might be thinking of Deuteronomy 25:11:

"If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity." (RSV)
posted by greatgefilte at 8:04 PM on October 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

"Testify" is related to testicle grabbing? From what I can gather, "testis" is the latin word for witness, and "testiculus" is "a small witness". The fact it is used for testicles is due to the fact that testicles can be taken as "witnesses to virility", according to the Oxford dictionary on my laptop.

I would have liked to have been there when your mom asked the priest about the origin of this expression, though.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 9:01 AM on October 3, 2008

Err ... what grobstein said.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 9:01 AM on October 3, 2008

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