What is the correct form and meaning of this colloquialism.

I have often heard my mother say in reference to someone driving too fast that the person was “ballin’ the jack”. Does anyone know the origin of this phrase? Is this the correct formulation of the phrase? Am I correct about the meaning and if so how does it relate to speed?

I suspect it is probably only used in the southern United States. Please refrain from the obvious play on words in your response unless you have a particularly clever take on it.


It was a railroadman’s term, originally. The “jack” is the engine, and “balling” is going at top speed or very hard.

It worked its way into popular speech through the medium of blues and folk songs.

I’ve never heard your phrase before, but in aviation we have a vaguely similar phrase, “balls to the wall”, which means using maximum power.

The accepted origin of that phrase is that the throttles and other various levers used to control the engine(s) used to be 6-8" tall steel stalks topped with 3/4" or so bakelite balls for a better grip, usually with engraved numbers to designate which engine they applied to, and often of differing shape or color depending on which engine funtion they controlled.

A WW-II era airplane had between 3 and 5 such levers per engine, which made for a whole mob o’ knobs on a multi-engined airplane like B17.

For max power, they were all pushed as far forwards as they’d go, towards the firewall that separates the cockpit from the single engine in the nose of smaller airplanes.

So when you need max power, grab all the balls and shove 'em up to the wall.

Perhaps your phrase is indirectly related, although at this late hour I’m having a hard time coming up with a connection.

I think the similarity of the phrase is accidental, LSLGuy. (Neat, though. I always thought it just meant “up against it.”)

I dug around and found a fleshed out explanation of the phrase.:

One of the better known songs, Ballin’ the Jack (Burris and Smith, 1913) was about a new dance. The song was popularized in For Me and My Gal (1942).

That’s a pretty good site’s take on it. “Probably” not from the train expression. Rather the 1913 song about dancing which popularized it.

Here’s more on the dance.

From the site:

Fats Domino also had a hit with the song in the 1950s.

I enjoyed it in Haunted Honeymoon with Gene wilder and Gilda Radner, too.

This is an old southern railroad term from the mid 1800’s for “full steam”…going fast. Another similar term used “high balling”

Which Larry Mudd mentioned in post #2, way back in 2004.

I have heard this too. It is supposed to be a reference to flyball governors.

“Balls out” means the governor is at it’s maximum extension. Jay Leno’s explanation on YouTube

Your dad or some other male figure in your life when you were a small child didn’t happen to be named Jack, did they?