Genealogy of "hi-ball"

Can someone please point me to the history of this name for a cocktail? Pride (and a small wager) are at stake.

I think it’s from the railroad term meaning to flag down a train. It comes from the red stop light on an electric signal being at the top (so it can be seen farther away).

Thus, when you’re hi-balling down the tracks, you are going too fast for conditions ahead.


You’re looking for the etymology, not the genealogy. I doubt “hi-ball” has parents.

Not much here other than a date.

Looks like I’m misinformed on the exact railroad etymology.

My O.E.D. only says Highball is a form of Poker played with a bottle. (Must be hard to hold with the rest of the hand. :wink: )

A caveat, here…my info on hi-ball/high-ball is dredged from distant memory, and may be fraught with poor focus or even utter poppycock. With that said:

In the days before railroads had cell phones, radios, or even telegraphy through the tracks, some routes had visual signals beside the tracks. The signal tower had a round shape on a swinging arm. When the “ball” was in the highest position, the fellow who raised the signal knew of no other trains, open switches or other hazards on that stretch of track. The engineer could go as fast as he wanted, and that was called highballing. In the lower positions, there was reason to slow down and be cautious.
In the Korean War, there was a similar term, redball. Some roads were marked with a round red sign, signifying that supply trucks had unlimited right-of-way. Big trucks would come along at high speed to evade ambush, and anyone who got in their way risked being run over.

As to the connection the drink, my undocumented guess is that a strongly mixed drink would be a high-speed way to intoxication. The earliest usage (as a drink) that I am aware of during the USA Prohibition era, so it’s possible it referred to some coast-is-clear signal for smugglers or speakeasies.

Perhaps I’m imprudent to post something as undocumented as this, but here it is anyway.

I think the game thing is more like it.
A highball is named after a “highball glass”
It might be like the glass we know, or like the leather tube used in bars to play Liars Dice, etc.
High ball is a game with dice thrown from a tall cup.Dice are often shaped more like balls, with the edges knocked off, to make it harder to get “loaded” dice to land on a specific side.

Partridge gives “high ball” as originating in Canada as railroad slang around 1910. However, it dates “highball” as a drink of whiskey served in a tall glass from 1899. Either Partridge is wrong (and he was British, so occasionally missed U.S. origins of slang), the drink name came first, or the two names came independently.

My OED is still packed away for Christmas giving, so I can’t come up with the definitive answer.

The word “Highball” was a railroad term in the mid-1800s. To signal an oncoming train that the track was clear ahead, the workers would place a signal ball high up on a pole (i.e., a Highball). The workers, when a Highball was displayed, would scamper off to the local pub and have a quick drink or two.

FYI the biggest drink of the day was Whiskey & Ginger – the predecessor of today’s true Highball, namely Whiskey & Ginger Ale.

I don’t know how accurate this is, but I’d heard that the Screwdriver got its name because that’s what was first used to stir the drink.

Let’s hope the Highball’s name doesn’t have the same type of origin . . .

My copy of the Condensed O.E.D. is available, and it says
“Highball - A game, a species of poker, played with balls and a bottle-shaped recepticle. 1894 Methods of cheating with dice, at highball, poker, roulette.
How dice fits with roulette or balls with poker is anyone’s guess.

Oops, there’s more.
I forgot the Condensed O.E.D. has an addendum section for “new words”.

It lists defintions 3&4 (no sign of 2!) as
“Highball, high-ball, high ball
3. A drink of whisky and soda or other mineral water served with broken ice in a tall glass.*U.S.[/] 1899. . .
4. A signal to proceed, given to a locomotive driver by waving the hand above the head. Hence, a clear way, a straight course.*U.S.[/] 1920. . .”

No hint of etymology (or genealogy) in either entry, I’m afraid.

Ah! Just opened my Xmas :slight_smile: present-Volume II of J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Chuck - Partridge got it right(this time). Highball used as a drink is cited in Lighter, from 1898(two separate listings)and 1899. But he does cite under “ball” in Vol. I, from Puck,1882 “It is quite a well-know fact…that ‘ball’ is a synonym for ‘drink’.”

The OED from 1821 says Ball of fire, glass of brandy.

peepthis You are right about the RR useage dating to the mid-1800s, although I can find no cite earlier than 1864. Then you said

How do you know this? Not doubting you, just would like to read about it.

Would also like to read about this. Can you help?

I’ve bartended to supplement my meager student income, and have read into alcohol history because customers always want to know – and tip nicely when you can teach them something new (I even wrote a research paper on alcohol and bootlegging in the Ol’ West a couple years back). But I’m sure that means nothin’ to nobody – I’ll try to track down sources for that info.

Ginger ale was not a staple in saloons of the day, so the barkeep would cut the whiskey with ginger.

Interestingly, the OED has all three meanings of highball all with first cite in the 1890s. The drink is the latest of the three, but there’s always a bit of overlap. Poker seems to be first, but not by enough to be sure which was the original term.

Chuck Just to confuse you-

1881-C.M Chase Editor’s Run in N. Mex. “Mexican monte, keno, faro, high ball, etc., are the prevailing games…”