1. What does "balling the jack" mean and what is its origin?
I hope it's not gross.
2. What does the phrase "it was all sixes and nines" mean and
what is it's origin? I believe that it is English and implies confusion
or pandemonium. Thanks.
To answer your first question, "balling the jack" has several
meanings. None of them are used much these days, but maybe the expression
may become more popular because of the recent novel, Balling the Jack,
by Frank Baldwin. It's being made into a movie, starring Ben Affleck as
a gambler, and the expression means "risking everything on one attempt"
- in this case, he bets $40,000 on a dart game.
However, that's not the original meaning of the word. It was the name
of a popular dance in 1913, which goes like this:
you put your two knees close up tight
Then you sway them to the left, then you sway them to the right
Step around the floor kind of nice and light
Then you twist around and twist around with all your might,
Stretch your loving arms straight out into space,
Then you do the Eagle Rock with style and grace.
Swing your foot way 'round then bring it back.
Now that's what I call Ballin' the Jack."
Later, the meaning
was expanded from just "dancing" to "having a great time".
Around the same time the song came out, the expression was used by railroad
workers to mean "going at full speed." It's not clear whether
the dance or railroad reference came first. And (if that's not enough)
it's also been used to describe operating a jackhammer.
So it wasn't anything gross (disgusting), though you can find later uses
of the expression where it has a sexual meaning, similar to "balling"
(having sex). For example, in the 1940s, blues artist Big Bill Broonzy
I hope that she won't fail because I feel so good, I feel so good.
You know I feel so good, feel like balling the jack.
Well, he could
be talking about dancing… but maybe not.
As for your other question, I think you mean "at sixes and sevens."
It is British and does mean "in a state of confusion or disorganization."
(For example, Janet was at sixes and sevens on the morning of her wedding.) I
don't think I've ever heard any Americans use it.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Slang, the expression dates from
1670 and may come from the gambling expression "set on cinque and
sice," which means betting everything on throwing a five and six
at dice. I don't know if I believe that, but at least it's interesting.
A. C. Kemp
I recently got an interesting email on this topic from a reader:
"ball" a "jack" refers possibly to the action of
risking a shot in "Boules", or Bocce or its sister game Petanque.
The jack in either case is the smaller ball for which the goal of the
game is to either throw your team's ball closest to it, or to knock
away your opponent's ball. To hit the target ball to another location,
or to "ball the jack", is to alter the focus of the gameplay.
To do so requires great accuracy, and assuming the game is scored for
money instead of points (it is a drinking game, and takes skill and
a bit of luck as well), takes risk as well, for in double or triple
team play, you only get one shot (one ball per player). So to "ball
the jack" is to risk a miss, and a wasted shot, at something that
is really important to you."
Thanks to Nasmichael
for this info!
More information on the railway origins from Steve, who says
Believe it or not I was looking for "balling the jack" after listening to my new Hobart Smith record. He sings the Broonzy tune you quoted and there's no doubt what he meant there :-). But I think the phrase has it's origins in how men worked on the railway. Hobart does another song with the lines "Balling the jack, lining track / You can't shovel no more" and the liner notes say it comes from railroad section gangs in the early 1870's. Now if you look up railway know-how on http://madisonrails.railfan.net/lewman10.html you will see that to fix a crooked rail you had one person sit on the track and site along it to see where it needed to be straightened (lining the track), then two men would put jacks at an angle against the inside ball of the rail and lever it until it was straight. Then you had to shovel ballast back in under the ties and tamp it down. The ball of the rail is the curved part going up to the flattened surface on top of the rail. The jack had a groove across the top that fit against the ball so it wouldn't slip off.