balling the jack

No sooner were we out of town than Eddie started to ball that jack ninety miles an hour out of sheer exuberance.

--Jack Kerouac, On The Road, 19571

Balling the jack is a US slang term meaning to go fast or make haste. The phrase comes from the name of a lively 1913 ragtime dance tune, Ballin’ the Jack, by Jim Burris and Chris Smith.2 The phrase appears in the lyrics of several songs of that decade and by the mid-1920s was being used in general speech, especially among railroadmen, as in this citation recorded c.1925 in Barbour County, West Virginia:

The car certainly did ball the jack.3

This use among railroadmen has given rise to the belief that the phrase originated in railroad jargon, but there is no evidence to indicate that this is so. Rather the dance inspired the phrase, and railroadmen picked it up and made it their own. The early adoption of the phrase by railroadmen was probably influenced by the railroading verb to highball, meaning to give a locomotive driver a signal to proceed, and from there to travel at speed.4 This latter sense of highball dates to at least 1912, when it appears in Railroad Man’s Magazine:

The con high-balled, and the manifest freight Pulled out on the stem behind the mail.


She whistled twice and high-balled out, They were off—down the Gila Monster Route.5

1Jack Kerouac, On The Road: The Original Scroll, edited by Howard Cunnell (New York: Viking, 2007), 123.

2Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 76.

3Harold Wentworth, American Dialect Dictionary (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1944), 41.

4Oxford English Dictionary, ball, v.3, 3rd Edition, Sep 2008, Oxford University Press, accessed 26 Dec 2008 <>.

5Oxford English Dictionary, highball, v., 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 26 Dec 2008 <>.

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