Can We Drop “Balls”?

June 11, 2012

Many people, including many skeptics, atheists, and humanists, use the term “balls” or its myriad equivalents as a metaphor for courage, determination, resolve or similar attributes.  I suggest we should stop using such terms, for a pretty obvious reason: one doesn’t need testicles to be courageous, determined, or resolute.

There has been a fair amount of discussion in the secular/skeptical blogosphere recently about sexism and sexual harassment.  However, maybe I missed it, but I have not seen much discussion about the common use of slang based on male or female anatomy, perhaps because it’s ubiquitous or it’s felt not much can be done about it. Whatever the reason, I think use of these terms merits some discussion, in particular, the common use of “balls.”

Before I go any further, let me hasten to make clear that I’m not asking people to stop using “balls” as a substitute for “courage” because of some prissiness about language. Profanity and slang don’t bother me. I worked as a lawyer for over twenty years. In conversations with my colleagues, every other word was “fuck” or one of its derivatives—and that’s just when we were talking about the weather.

Nor am I suggesting that there be some sort of censorship by secular or skeptical organizations.  We’re not going to throw someone out of a conference just because they lace their conversation with references to “balls,” “nuts,” “cojones,” etc.

But I do think that people who pride themselves on evidence-based reasoning should refrain from the all-too-common use of “balls” as a substitute for “courage” and related terms, as in the sentence, “He doesn’t have the balls to tell Dawkins he’s wrong.” Testosterone is associated with certain behaviors and traits, including aggression (not necessarily a bad thing, by the way), but there is no association with courage, determination, or resolve. Use of “balls” when “courage” will do perpetuates the stereotype that men have more courage or determination than women.

One might argue that “balls” is used so often that it’s lost its gender-specific connotations. I don’t buy that argument—and isn’t that argument similar to what we hear, and reject, from the religious fundies? “Oh, the word ‘God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance has lost any religious significance” or “the cross has become a secular symbol.” We don’t think religious terms lose their significance just because they’re repeated frequently; why should we think slang loses its gender reference just because it’s repeated frequently?

Language is powerful. Language not only expresses our thoughts, it shapes them. “Balls” is in common use, and that’s precisely part of the problem. It’s embedded so much in our language that we don’t notice it, but that simply means our sexism is burrowed in deep.

Am I exaggerating the effects of using “balls” and similar gender-specific slang? I don’t think so. Quick: what do you call someone who has no balls, who is a weak-willed individual? Why, a “pussy” of course.

It’s difficult to break language habits, but not impossible. In a couple of decades, most people stopped using “mankind” when they really meant “humanity,” and I think one can stop using “balls” as a substitute for courage, determination, or resolve with just a bit of effort. (If one feels the need for an anatomy-based metaphor, “backbone” does quite nicely.) Plus, once one drops the sexist slang one will have the immense satisfaction that comes with the realization that one has finally graduated 8th grade.












#1 Alan (Guest) on Monday June 11, 2012 at 7:53pm

“Don’t be a dick.”

#2 Daniel Schealler (Guest) on Monday June 11, 2012 at 8:26pm

It comes up over at Free Thought Blogs every now and again - but typically only in the context of one of the bloggers that have a focus on feminism and sexism, and even then it typically focuses on gender-slang slurs, not gender-slang virtues.

It’s something that’s been on my mind for a while, and I wholeheartedly agree that it’s worthwhile to make a conscious effort to remove gendered slang from our common usage of language.

I’ve been trying at this for a while myself regarding gendered slurs. Instead of ‘dick’ I’ll say ‘jerk’ or ‘arsehole’.

In the case of ‘balls’ I’ll make a conscious effort to start using ‘spine’ or ‘backbone’ instead. Should be easy enough for me - I don’t think I say ‘balls’ all that often.

#3 greg_laden on Monday June 11, 2012 at 8:56pm

It took a lot of ovaries to write this post, but somebody had to say it!

#4 Fundulus (Guest) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 12:04am

This has bothered me for as long as I can remember hearing “balls ” used in this way. I am amazed by the number of smart skeptical women who I hear using it. It’s not more “wrong” than when men use it, but certainly more ironic.  Thanks for bringing up the issue.

#5 Fundulus (Guest) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 12:13am

And I hate it that the skeptic community has adopted this “don’t be a dick” slogan. Language does matter!  It changes the way our heads are wired. Why would enlightened people want to connect good/evil with male/female or vis versa?

#6 Penny Poptart (Guest) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 1:21am

I know I’m gonna get slammed for this, but here goes.  The female equivalent was “cunt”, until it was deemed politically incorrect.  (By the way, I haven’t used that term in decades. I am discussing it as a word) I am reminded of the Music School joke from many years ago about the tough old opera singer giving lessons who asked her new student, “Where do you sing from my dear?”
    “Why from the diaphram.” the student properly answered.
    “Well, try singing from the cunt” the old brawd said.
    It gains its power from its shock value, which is not always a bad thing.  Should we get rid of all metaphors?  It would make our speech pretty boring.
    By the way, “brawd” was another term that implied strength, toughness and determination.

#7 cgosling (Guest) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 6:50am

It is unlikely we can intentionally remove gendered slang from our language because the great mass of humanity does not read usage recommendations from CFI intellectuals. (No insult meant) The term “balls” springs appropriately from some tongues while it tastes vile to other tongues. “Great balls of fire” will survive our criticism, but what does it mean?

#8 John (Guest) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 7:08am

I have stopped using this term, but not because of a pedantic musing on whether the term is sexually demeaning or not, but because of a Betty White bit. I’m sure the delivery is better from her, but the quick version is basically: balls are sensitive and fragile, vaginas take a pounding. I think the point being made is the same, but my point would be that you can accomplish much more with a well timed joke than you can with this type of musing on the subject. Not that I don’t support the focus, but the writing and delivery suggests more of a personal musing than any real effort to change something.

#9 Melody Hensley on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 7:56am

Greg Laden stole my line. I always use ‘ovaries’ rather than ‘balls’ to get people to think about what they are saying. I even correct them when they use ‘balls’. “Ovaries, please.” It usually gets a laugh.

#10 Greg Laden (Guest) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 7:56am

cgosling, “Great balls of fire” derives from a biblical reference.  The fire is the holy spirit, a.k.a. holy ghost (I always preferred the latter term because it is more inline with the overall spookiness of the whole christian thing) when he/it appears to the apostles.

#11 Greg Laden (Guest) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 8:33am

It takes only one ball to play baseball, but to be on Minnesota’s top ranked sports team, it takes a couple of ovaries.

(Our women’s basketball team has been the star attraction for the last couple of years as our four professional male sports teams vie in a race to last place every year.)

#12 Monette Richards on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 8:48am

cgosling, change has to start somewhere. If CFI intellectuals stop using sexist language and call out others who do, then they tell two friends, and they tell two friends, we suddenly have a revolution!

#13 Ophelia Benson on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 9:32am

Ohhh yes. This has been annoying the bejesus out of me for decades, and as a matter of fact I do nail it when people say it on my blog…but then that hardly ever happens, probably because people know what a dogmatic fanatical feminazi I am. Hahahacough.

I remember an anti-war rally in the early ‘70s, and some macho guy yelling into the mic about having the cojones to blah blah blah - I summoned all the breath I had to shout “I don’t have cojones!!” - fortunately so did several other women in the crowd.

#14 Mike (Guest) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 9:43am

I generally try to avoid these terms, as they originate and somewhat reflect a viewpoint of gender inequality. Although I sometimes substitute “ovaries”, there are plenty of other words—backbone, gut, chutspah, strength, etc.—that convey similar concepts that it’s not hard to use one of them.

That being said, the sexist meaning _has_ mostly been lost: it seems strange to no one to say that a woman has lot of balls, and this isn’t even usually taken to imply something masculine about her. This is EXACTLY what things are with “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. (Few if any children think about what they’re saying or care about it. Indeed, it’s the very religious folks who mostly pretend otherwise and I’m embarrassed for you that you’re claiming the same.)

Thank God the literal meaning is gone, otherwise it would make no sense! Balls are something so fragile that the tiniest tap causes them to reverberate with debilitating pain. A pussy, on the other hand, can withstand bones around it coming apart and then expanding to accommodate a human being several, several times its own size to pass through.

#15 Randy on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 9:49am

I agree with the objection to “balls”.  And, the plural is kind of inaccurate, as one is sufficient for all purposes.

“Ovaries” (a technical term for internal organs) as replacement for “balls” (a slang term for external organs) isn’t a good match.  “Tits” might be better, and I have, once, heard it used that way.  But all of these suffer from the same problems of gender and number.

I like the suggestion of “backbone” and related terms. But I think we’ll find that it’s not a good replacement either.  “Balls” is dirty.  You can’t replace it with a clean word like “backbone”.  It doesn’t have the same expressive power.

What about “asshole”?  True, there’s not much anatomical basis for choosing that word, but it does have the advantage of being a dirty slang word that is not gender specific, and already carries some connotations of not being constrained by what other people think.  There are already a lot of proud “assholes”.

#16 Andre (Guest) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 11:37am

I don’t see why there has to be a gender-neutral word for it.  Balls for men with steadfastness, tits for women with steadfastness.  Men are bastards or dicks, women are bitches or cunts.  Not everything has to be taken so literally and the truth is that even though men and women are equal, or at least, should be treated equally, this doesn’t mean they’re the exact same or should be treated the exact same way.  it’s pretty self-evident that there are significant differences between men and women, at the very least biologically, but in my view also psychologically, emotionally, and socially.

#17 Ophelia Benson on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 12:15pm

Yeah that’s fabulous advice, Andre. Women just love being called bitches or cunts.

#18 Melody Hensley on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 12:26pm

I think Andre missed Ophelia’s Sexual Epithets 101 class. I hope he doesn’t dig deeper or he might get schooled.

#19 Mike (Guest) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 12:53pm

Ophelia, I think your criticism misses the mark. The recipient of an insult isn’t supposed to like it: men don’t like being called bastards. That’s the point!

The problem with insults like “cunt” (and “nigger”, “fag”, “retard”, etc.) isn’t that the recipient wouldn’t like being called that, but that using a sexist or otherwise bigoted slur is degrading to all people and especially to women (or other marginalized or oppressed groups).

#20 Fundulus (Guest) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 1:23pm

Frogmistress is right . You have to start somewhere.  Language can be changed. 

And Mike I think you are very wrong to think that “under god” addition to the pledge is benign.  So why not have all our Children say “god is great” in school too?  What language you use with children has a much more lasting affect than you think.  Would you really tell your daughter that she needs more balls to perform some hard task? 

And I would love to see the poll determining what percentage of us have no sexual meaning attached to these uses of balls, dicks, etc..  It would also be interesting to see how different age groups perceive these words.

#21 Penny Poptart (Guest) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 2:11pm

This metaphor is as old as the biblical saying to “Gird up thy loins and prepare for battle.”  (Sorry. Couldn’t resist the irony. lol)

#22 MNb (Guest) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 2:19pm

I admire women with balls.

#23 Andre (Guest) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 3:43pm

As long as we’re going there, I think both Ophelia and Melody need to take a basic reading comprehension class.  (1.) I never said or even implied that such insults should be loved by women or, in a less vaginocentric world, men.  (2.)  No need for Sexual Epithets 101, because I used them with parity.  If you had read my comment instead of focusing on the words and meaning that you wanted to get out of it, you might see that.

On a personal note: Melody, long time no see.  How’s Freethought Forum doing?

#24 Melody Hensley on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 3:49pm

Andre, FF was so 2004.

#25 L.Long (Guest) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 4:50pm

Don’t understand the post.  ‘It takes Balls to….’
has nothing to do with testicles but is about balls.  That’s why I carry two small balls in my pocket.  When some one says ‘you aint got the balls to….’ I say yes I do and take them out and show them.
I also carry a ‘a round to it’ as well.
But it is a good post on a subject that needed discussion.

#26 DT (Guest) on Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 11:43pm

Nah, lets not. At least until negative gendered slang is gone, positive can stay.  Balls do colloquially refer to male sexual organs, but theres no reason the language cannot grow and develop to encompass female as well, since 2 ovaries are balls too. Both male and female can lose testicle(s) or ovary(s) respectively from injury or disease, so that term may insensitive to them. However, its not going to kill you to give a nod to the current and historical, voluntary, involuntary or systemic sacrifice of the male-bodied.

#27 Benjamin Radford on Wednesday June 13, 2012 at 10:41am

Interesting post, Ron. You suggest that people stop using “balls” as a metaphor for courage because “one doesn’t need testicles to be courageous, determined, or resolute,” and you are absolutely right. There is no necessary connection or correlation whatsoever between gender and courage or determination.

However you seem to be mistaken in assuming that “balls” necessarily derives specifically from testicles or maleness. In fact a review of the linguistic books on my shelf (including “Sexual Slang,” by Alan Richter, HarperPerennial, 1993; “From the Horse’s Mouth,” by John Ayto, Oxford University Press, 2009; “New Dictionary of American Slang,” by Robert Chapman, 1986, Harper & Row, and “Origin,” by Eric Partridge, 1978, Crown Publishers) reveals that testes are only one of many etymological roots for “ball” and its variants.

Two examples:

The phrase “go balls out” is widely (and apparently incorrectly) assumed to refer to testicles and male aggression. However several sources offer another plausible (though possibly apocryphal) derivation: “This refers to the governor on a steam engine. Two heavy balls are attached to the engine so that as engine speed increases, the centrifugal force of the flywheel causes the balls to rise. As the balls top out, they govern (limit) the engine, thereby controlling maximum engine speed. “Balls out,” then, refers to running the engine at maximum speed.” (I can’t post the link here but it’s easy to find on the Web). It seems that balls, in this case and despite popular assumption, refers not to testicles but parts of a steam engine.

In sports, the person or team literally in possession of the ball—more broadly and metaphorically, the person “with the ball(s)”—is the one in charge. The ball, as the device that is used to win the competition, is the most important item in the game; where the (tennis, soccer, baseball, basketball, football, etc.) ball goes completely determines who wins and who loses. And since the players control the balls, the best/most courageous/capable/skilled players have the balls (literally and metaphorically) and thus win the games.

We see this in countless uses involving “ball,” including “drop the ball,” “have a lot on the ball,” “keep your eye on the ball,” “play ball,” “a whole new ball game,” “ball’s in your court,” etc. (Ayto 2009, 17). Clearly all of these senses involve power, ability, determination, and so on—and just as clearly none of these uses involve implicit nor explicit reference to maleness or testicles.

You are surely correct that some specific variations on “balls” that reference the human body (such as “to have balls”) are associated with testicles (for those who consider the word’s derivation), but it’s important to recognize that there are many other uses of the word “ball” that denote ability, courage, and determination but have little or nothing to do with gender.

I don’t like or use phrases like “having the balls” (to do something) because I generally don’t use slang—it’s often a sign of poor writing. Discouraging sexism in language is fine; I was brought up by a mother who made it clear to me that “women are not ‘chicks’,” which caused some confusion when many ostensible feminists such as Rebecca Watson call themselves “chicks.” But we need to be careful about assuming that many (or most) uses of “ball” have a gendered derivation.

#28 Monette Richards on Wednesday June 13, 2012 at 10:51am

Ben, are you truly suggesting that you think Ron is saying that “ball’s in your court” is a sexist phrase and we shouldn’t use it?

I don’t think he meant to imply that ballpoint pens were sexist, either.

But, I’m glad to see you got a dig in on Rebecca Watson. That was an important part of this discussion.

#29 Benjamin Radford on Wednesday June 13, 2012 at 10:59am

Frogmistress, if that’s what you took from my post then perhaps you should re-read it. I agreed with Ron’s point (and stated so twice), but merely pointed out that we need to be careful about assuming that many or most uses of “having balls” are related to gendered language; in many cases they are not.

Also, there was no “dig” at either Watson nor my mother; my point was that what one person or generation considers sexist or offensive is embraced by another person or generation. Sorry if you misunderstood.

#30 Dorion on Wednesday June 13, 2012 at 11:05am

“Get some balls” is not a phrase I ever use because I just find it vulgar. HOWEVER, I do take issue with the notion that a phrase connoting something “positive” about any group automatically and necessarily means it connotes something negative about another group. That’s just oversensitivity gone amuck.

#31 Dorion on Wednesday June 13, 2012 at 11:24am

Also, Ben? Only a ginger can call another ginger “ginger.”

#32 Benjamin Radford on Wednesday June 13, 2012 at 12:20pm

Dorion- You bring up an interesting question, about why a positive attribute about one group or gender would necessarily be viewed as denigrating another group or gender…Maybe Ron or someone else here can answer that question for you. 

For example biologically men tend to be the physically stronger sex: overall they tend to be taller and heavier and have more muscle mass than women. That’s neither good nor bad, not a sexist statement, just a simple fact of biology. Though (physical) strength is associated with maleness, we use words like “strong” and “strength” to describe both men and women equally. No one would consider the word “strong” inappropriate to describe women, despite its clear associations with men and masculinity.

Also, I never liked Ginger; I liked MaryAnn—because she was smart, not pretty!

#33 Monette Richards on Wednesday June 13, 2012 at 1:08pm

Yes, I noticed you agreed with him.

It was your assumption that Ron is talking about all the usage of balls which had me confused. He specifically says:

‘But I do think that people who pride themselves on evidence-based reasoning should refrain from the all-too-common use of “balls” as a substitute for “courage” and related terms, as in the sentence, “He doesn’t have the balls to tell Dawkins he’s wrong.”’

No where does he suggest that any other usage of balls should be considered sexist, making your comment come off as a sort of “No! You can’t take my balls from me!”

And, perhaps I did misunderstand and you didn’t mean the bit about “chicks” to be a negative jab at Watson; but then I have to ask why you would choose that example. I’m pretty sure you would be familiar with the concept of taking ownership of a word so that it can no longer be used against you*. And I’m pretty sure you would be aware that some people use words or phrases that are sexist either unknowingly or uncaringly. It doesn’t negate the sexism of the word or phrase.

But, we weren’t talking about the next generation of women embracing the phrase “have the balls”. We were talking about the sexism of using balls to mean courage and, hey, we should just try to stop doing that.

*I have no idea why Watson uses chicks.

#34 Andre (Guest) on Wednesday June 13, 2012 at 1:37pm

Was hesitant to post this because I was worried about it being too vulgar, but to add to Ben’s post from above, albeit from a less scholarly angle:  I’ve known people to use the slang terms “ladyballs”, presumably meaning the ovaries, and “ladydick”(in the context of, after starting a new fitness plan, saying “I’m sweating my ladydick off”), presumably meaning the clit.

#35 Benjamin Radford on Wednesday June 13, 2012 at 3:48pm

Nowhere did I suggest Ron was wrong in his discussion of using “balls” as a sexist way of denoting courage or determination.

The problem is that he seems unaware that, linguistically, many common uses of “balls,” “having balls,” etc. have nothing to do with gender or sexism. In fact he explicitly refers to (“balls”) as having “gender-specific connotations,” which as a categorical statement is factually incorrect (or at least incomplete; *some* uses of “balls” have gender connotations, but many of them don’t).

As for your suggestion that Ron was only talking about one specific, clearly sexist usage (as in “He doesn’t have the balls to tell Dawkins he’s wrong,”) he explicitly says otherwise when he refers to “the term ‘balls’ or its myriad equivalents”—and those “myriad equivalents” are exactly those I researched and discussed in my post. In fact he also writes, ““Balls” is…embedded so much in our language that we don’t notice it, but that simply means our sexism is burrowed in deep.” Dismissing the examples I give as irrelevant is disingenuous.

At the end of the day, people use words and terms all the time that they themselves don’t know the origins (or even correct meanings) of. For some speakers, words and phrases like “balls” or “having the balls” DO clearly have a sexist male connotation, just as Ron says, but that is not necessarily true for any given person, or everyone.

Sexism in this case may be in the eye or ear of the beholder: If you and I both hear a person say he or she’s going “balls out” on a project, one person may assume it’s obviously a sexist metaphor, while another may know its true origin as an antiquated railroad metaphor having nothing to do with sexism.

The problem with Ron’s argument, as I see it, is that many common uses of “balls” (and its myriad equivalents) cannot be traced to a single metaphor with “gender-specific connotations.” If Ron is only referring to a few specific examples of “balls” usage where the reference is clearly to testicles (as in “you got some big balls coming in here”), then I agree. But any blanket statement (or assumption) that usage of “balls” or its variants is inherently sexist is not supported by the evidence, since there are many different meanings and origins.

#36 Daniel Schealler (Guest) on Wednesday June 13, 2012 at 4:24pm

@Ben Radford

What you (and now, myself) know about the history of the word ‘balls’ in this kind of usage is not as important as the common understanding that people infer when the term is used.

I suspect you know that, as you’ve said several times that you’re not calling Lindsay out or anything, just providing some additional background.

For the record: I wasn’t aware of the history of the term either. It’s actually quite interesting!

But at the same time, it doesn’t actually change anything about the matter - again, I don’t suspect you think it changes anything either.

That’s partly why I think people are jumping at you, because at a fair and casual reading it seems as if you’re suggesting that this information changes Lindsay’s argument… When at best it’s an interesting historical tidbit of little relevance to the main concern of this article and the thread.

At least, that’s my view. As always, correct me if I’m wrong in my assessment of what it is you’re trying to say here. I get that stuff wrong all the time, so now wouldn’t be surprising at all.

#37 Benjamin Radford on Wednesday June 13, 2012 at 4:38pm

@Daniel, yes, you’re right: I’m not calling Ron or anyone else out as being flat-out wrong overall, I’m just providing some scholarship and research for context and perspective on the topic.

Ron and others are clearly correct that some uses of “balls” and its variants can be considered sexist; I’m just pointing out that there are many other common uses of “balls” (and variants) that also suggest power, ability, courage, determination, etc. but are not sexist and do not have gender-specific connotations. That’s all.

#38 DebGod on Wednesday June 13, 2012 at 10:33pm

Ron said, “Many people, including many skeptics, atheists, and humanists, use the term ‘balls’ or its myriad equivalents as a metaphor for courage, determination, resolve or similar attributes.”

It seems to me that “myriad equivalents” doesn’t mean “other ways one can use the word ‘ball’ or ‘balls’ that don’t necessarily refer to testicles.”  I thought it meant “synonyms for ‘balls,’ i.e., ‘testicles,’ such as ‘cojones’ or ‘nuts.’”

Therefore, the fact that “ball” and “balls” can be used in idiomatic expressions that aren’t referring to testicles (“have a ball,” “keep your eye on the ball”) seems irrelevant to the point that I thought Ron was making, which is that skeptic-types should avoid using terms understood to be slang/vulgar terms referring to testicles with the intention of connoting courage, determination, etc.

#39 Benjamin Radford on Wednesday June 13, 2012 at 11:20pm

DebGod wrote: “It seems to me that “myriad equivalents” doesn’t mean “other ways one can use the word ‘ball’ or ‘balls’ that don’t necessarily refer to testicles.”  I thought it meant “synonyms for ‘balls,’ i.e., ‘testicles,’ such as ‘cojones’ or ‘nuts.’”

I didn’t read it that way, but you may be right, that’s a good point; maybe Ron can clarify what he meant. I’ve personally never heard anyone say that someone “doesn’t have the nuts” to do something, though I guess a few times I’ve heard “cojones” used…

Note that Ron wrote, ““Balls” is in common use,” suggesting (to me) that he was not referring to one or two very specific phrases that explicitly denoted testicles, but in fact to “balls” in all its common usages. I assumed he meant the many and myriad phrases incorporating “balls,” but I could be wrong. If so, that was my mistake.

As I wrote, if Ron is only referring to a few specific examples of “balls” usage where the reference is clearly to testicles then I agree. Ron’s issue, which he repeats several times, is that he doesn’t like “balls” (stated generically, not just as used in one specific sentence) substituting for “courage” in any sense because of its gender-specific connotations.

The problem is that, as I explain above, there are many uses of “balls” that (like the testicular meaning) also imply courage or determination and that at first appear to—but in fact do not—have gender-specific connotations. My point is that when someone uses a word or phrase (except in certain very specific circumstances) we cannot know (and they may not know) whether their usage does in fact have the sexist connotations Ron is talking about.

In the example above, if you and I both hear a person say he or she’s going “balls out” on a project, one person may assume it’s obviously a sexist metaphor, while another person may know its true origin as an antiquated railroad metaphor having nothing to do with sexism. Something being a “ballsy move” might be interpreted to have gendered connotations—or it might not.

Are we prepared to discourage phrases like “he doesn’t have the balls”  while saying that it’s fine for people to say “she’s going balls out on this”? Who decides which “ball” phrases are self-evidently sexist, and which are clearly not, and which are not but could be interpreted that way? Where do we draw the line?

#40 Sucka Free (Guest) on Thursday June 14, 2012 at 4:13am

Atheists obsess over wording in a way that would make theologians who excommunicate each other over the difference of one Greek letter jealous. Y’all have managed to get even more tedious than going to church. Congratulations.

#41 Monette Richards on Thursday June 14, 2012 at 4:18am

DebGod, exactly. I don’t think he was saying “all the other uses of balls” as much as “all the words we use to mean testicles=courage.”

#42 Greg Laden (Guest) on Thursday June 14, 2012 at 5:28am

DebGod is obviously correct.

#43 Benjamin Radford on Thursday June 14, 2012 at 8:16am

It wasn’t my intention to be pedantic; I read Ron’s discussion about the use of “balls” and I looked up the word (and its associated variations, which is what I thought he meant) in several reference books on words and slang, and reported what I found.

#44 Benjamin Radford on Thursday June 14, 2012 at 8:17am

...Maybe I dropped the ball! 

#45 Greg Laden (Guest) on Thursday June 14, 2012 at 8:26am

...Maybe I dropped the ball!

It is true that from this point forward we will now always wonder just what exactly was the origin of use of this or that particular case. 

I’m surprised the famous quote from World War II hasn’t come up yet. IIRC the general in charge of the Allied troops that were surrounded by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge was sent a message by the German commander demanding surrender.  The return message was one word:  BALLS!!!

I wonder just exactly what he meant by that ...

#46 Mark Mackey (Guest) on Sunday June 17, 2012 at 7:46pm

#45 is incorrect.  The response was “Nuts!”  As in, “Nuts to that,” (slang for “No,” or “Go to Hell.”).

#47 Ronald A. Lindsay on Friday June 22, 2012 at 6:31am

I apologize for the delayed response, but I was traveling all day on June 13, and then neglected to check back on the comments.

But to settle a question that I’m sure has been keeping many of you awake at night, Debbie’s interpretation (comment #38) of my remarks is correct; Ben’s interpretation (comments # 35, 39) of my remarks is incorrect. When I alluded to the myriad equivalents of “balls,” I was talking about the other slang terms for testes, such as nuts, cojones, nads, family jewels, and pair.

The last synonym makes me wonder about something. When I was briefly in the USMC in 1972 (long story which I will not explore here) one of the drill sergeant’s favorite exhortations was “Say it like you got a pair!” This was often followed up by some observation such as “I can’t hear you, Lindsay, you [faggot, pussy, dickless wimp].” Presumably other motivating terms are used in today’s military, unless perhaps they have tried to convince recruits that “pair” is androgynous and can refer to testes or ovaries.

#48 Benjamin Radford on Friday June 22, 2012 at 11:12am

Ron, thanks for the clarification. I didn’t realize you were referring specifically to the phrase “having the [insert testicular euphemism here] to” do something, I misunderstood.

Just to further clarify:

You don’t object to other common uses of “balls” that denote courage, determination, and resoluteness (such as “that’s a ballsy move” or “he’s going balls out” or “going balls to the wall”), is that correct? Those are fine?

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