My friend Stan emailed me a joke recently about levels of courage displayed by men when they arrive at home late after a night of frolicking. Now, the joke cannot be repeated in front of the children, but it set me thinking about why ‘guts’ and ‘balls’ are so often associated with courage, or the lack thereof.
Even Italy’s highest court of appeal might have missed the ball recently in the case of the latter of the two words.
In the case of ‘guts’ the association is quite literal and goes back to the time when sharp objects like spears and swords were the weapons of the day and a soldier could literally find himself ‘spilling his guts’ in battle. Yes, it could take ‘guts’ to engage in conflict in those days if an enemy sword reached the ‘soft under-belly’ where the armour did not.
To say someone had guts implied that he was willing to spill his for his cause or for king and country.
The guts-association also gave rise to related expressions such as ‘I will have your guts for garters’, which was not only popular because it contains a rhythmic alliteration, but also because it graphically conveyed a serious warning or threat implying disembowelment.
The alliteration part in English is probably responsible for the fact that it is a typical English expression dating back to the Middle Ages in England.
The expression's first known appearance in print was in 1592 in Robert Greene's The Scottish Historie of James the Fourth. Whether guts (tough enough to provide strings for musical instruments) were ever literally used to also make garters is not known, but by 1592 guts had clearly already also taken on figurative meaning.
It is not exactly clear why, where and when the association between courage and ‘balls’ developed, but not all expressions involving balls originated with that part of the male anatomy where most females believe males harbour their brains.
The most glaring example of such a misconception is probably the expression ‘balls to the wall’, meaning to push things to the limit or to go ‘all out’, and in which case alliteration again played a role.
This expression first rose to some prominence among the fighter pilots of World War II. The ‘balls’ were knobs atop their planes' throttle controls and pushing the throttle all the way forward to the wall of the cockpit was to apply full throttle and push the plane to its limits.
But the expression itself turns out to pre-date the days of fighter pilots by far, although it did originate in the world of transport. It originated with James Watt's invention of the centrifugal governor used on early steam engines in the 1770s. It was used in reference to the position of the weights on the governor in increasing engine speed.
There are also, away from the male anatomy-association, a number of other expressions involving balls, as in ‘having a ball’.
A ball was a medieval religious celebration held on special occasions such as the Feast of Fools at Easter, during which the choirboys danced and sang in a ring while catching and returning a ball, lobbed at them by a church leader, called the ring leader. And now we also know where the word ringleader comes from.
Evidence that the word balls is indeed mostly understood to refer to the extent to which someone is regarded as a ‘real man’ also comes from World War II in the form of a song that goes:
"Goering has only got one ball
Goebels has two, but very small,
Himmler, is very sim'lar,
And Hitler has no balls at all."
The final word on the subject might go to Italy’s highest court of appeal, which in August last year ruled that it is a crime to tell someone "you don't have the balls”.
A lawyer objected to being told during a court battle "you don't have the balls”. His objection was originally over-ruled by the presiding judge and he had the guts to take the matter on appeal.
The appeal court in Rome not only found in his favour but decided the phrase should be outlawed, not so much because it cast doubt on the offended party's virility, but because it implied a "lack of determination, competence and consistency – virtues which, rightly or wrongly, continue to be regarded as suggestive of the male sex”.