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The guy [truck driver] just yelled above the roar, and all I [had hitchhiked the car]had to do was yell back, and we relaxed. And he balled that thing clear to Iowa City and yelled me the funniest stories about how he got around the law in every town that had an unfair speed limit, saying over and over again, “Them goddam cops can’t put no flies on my ass!” Just as we rolled into Iowa City he saw another truck coming behind us, and because he had to turn off at Iowa City he blinked his tail lights at the other guy and slowed down for me to jump out, which I did with my bag, and the other truck, acknowledging this exchange, stopped for me, and once again, in the twink of nothing, I was in another big high cab, all set to go hundreds of miles across the night, and was I happy! And the new truck driver was as crazy as the other and yelled just as much, and all I had to do was lean back and roll on. Now I could see Denver looming ahead of me like the Promised Land, way out here beneath the stars, across the prairie of Iowa and the plains of Nebraska, and I could see the greater vision of San Francisco beyond, like jewels in the night. He balled the jack and told stories for a couple of hours, then, at a town in Iowa where years later Dean and I were stopped on suspicion in what looked like a stolen Cadillac, he slept a few hours in the seat (Jack Kerouac, On the Road)

What are those bold-faced parts mean?

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At first I wondered if this might be some kind of trucker lingo, but the phrase seems to be a bit dated.

The Urban Dictionary indicates that the phrase means to move real fast (particularly in a vehicle), and that fits the context. The best description of the phrase I found, though, was in a Word of the Day column:

The phrase ball the jack was popularized in 1913 by a ragtime song by Jim Burris and Chris Smith called "Ballin' the Jack." This well-known song introduced a dance step of the same name that was the subject of the song, so one sense of ball the jack was 'to perform (the dance step introduced in the song)'.

The usual sense of the expression, though, is 'to go fast; make haste', and this is often used in reference to railroad trains. This train-related use seems not to be the origin, however; jack 'a railroad locomotive' isn't found outside this phrase until later. (The phrase is verbal, which is why I said that it doesn't mean 'with great haste', but rather 'to do something with great haste'.) A slightly different sense is 'to work hard and efficiently'.

The ragtime song was published in 1913, and the phrase is not attested earlier. It is unknown whether the song actually coined the phrase or merely popularized an already existing one. Both the 'go fast' and the 'work hard' senses were common by the end of the 1910s.

I can see why Kerouac might have used the term when he was writing, but I'd avoid using it today. For one, it's not well-known; I think most would give you a blank stare. For another, balling has other meanings nowadays, and I don't think you'd want to be misunderstood.

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Old trucks had a manual gearshift which consisted of a ball-and-jack shifting device (gear shift lever that had a ball-like device at the lower bottom of the gear shift lever). The gear shift lever would change gears in the transmission. Whenever a trucker would really make haste shifting the gears, upshifting and downshifting to make the truck run fast, it would be said "that trucker is really ballin' the jack". Thus the term in the thirties, forties and early fifties "ballin' the jack".

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  • 1
    That's a great explanation, but do you have usage examples or other sources that support that origin?
    – nxx
    Mar 17 '14 at 14:28
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I believe this term originated with railroad slang from the late 1800's when signal flags ("jacks") were used to indicate whether trains had clear tracks ahead or not. Highballing, or balling the jack, indicated that the signal flags were raised high and the track was clear.

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  • Yes, but where does "balling" come in? Mar 7 '16 at 18:46

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