'Ball the jack,' PDQ
Knight Ridder Service | October 31,2004
Q: Could you please tell me what it means to "ball the jack"? I've heard it used in a couple of songs. Does it have anything to do with truck driving? Where did the phrase originate? — D.F., Lakeview, Ore.
A: We are certain that many a trucker does "ball the jack" down the highway, for the phrase means simply "to go fast." Although one source claims it derives from an identical logging expression, its probable origin is from railroad terminology, in which it means "to gain speed."
"Ball" is probably a shortened version of "highball," which is the railroad term for a signal to the engineer that he may proceed at full speed, and is also used for a fast train. The term "highball" developed from an early railroad practice in which the go-ahead signal given to an engineer was the raising of a metal ball to the top of a pole. The verb "highball," meaning "to go at full speed," also developed from this practice.
"Jack" is railroad slang for "locomotive." The origin of this term is uncertain, but it may be related to other kinds of machinery that are called "jacks" or that have names in which another word is combined with "jack," such as "jackshaft." To a railroader, then, "ball the jack" means "to bring a locomotive to full speed."
The expression also caught on outside of railroading circles and is used generically to mean "to move fast" or "to hurry." It is certainly used in connection with truckers, but it can also describe a person moving at high speed.
Q: It's generally believed that the word "Nazi" is an acronym for "National Socialist." But I remember reading many years ago the obituary of a Bavarian wit and writer — apparently a kind of Art Buchwald of his time — who was said to have dubbed the fledgling National Socialist Party "Nazis" when the party first appeared in the 1920s, "Nazi" being a Bavarian slang word meaning "jerk" or "buffoon." The party itself used the acronym "Naso," so "Nazi" was apparently some kind of Bavarian pun. Can you confirm this story? — O.V., Trenton, N.J.
A: The writer whose obituary you read was undoubtedly Konrad Heiden, a German-born biographer of Hitler, author of "Der Fuehrer: Hitler's Rise to Power" (1944) and other books.
Heiden may not have been the Art Buchwald of his time, but he was a serious and widely read opponent of Nazism for many years. We are aware of his claim to have coined "Nazi" in the 1920s, but we have seen no evidence.
The earliest recorded example of "Nazi" is from 1930. The acronymic explanation of its origin, which traces it to the "Na" and "zi" of the German word "Nationalsozialist," is now recognized as incorrect. The true origin of "Nazi" appears to be as a shortening and respelling of the longer word, based on the German pronunciation of "Nati-," in which the "t" is pronounced like "ts."
Our files contain a letter dated 1932 from the German Embassy in Washington confirming this derivation.
(This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster's Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, MA 01102.)