Ball-buster and Ball-breaker
Bill Long 4/29/05
The Evolution of a Concept
[For an essay considering the evolution of the word dipshit, click here.]
[For essays on the history of insults in English, click here and here.]
As I was studying the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) in preparation for the National Senior Spelling Bee in Cheyenne on June 18, I came across "ball-buster" as a word. I know it won't be asked at the Bee, but I wanted to study it nevertheless. I think I was fascinated more by the way that dictionaries were going to deal with it than by the meaning of it. Everyone knows what a ball-busting task (or person) is; I wanted to see if the dictionaries did. Here is what I found.
The Oxford English Dictionary--Laying out the Issue
Actually, the OED handles the issues clearly, even if it stops in 1980. It differentiates between two terms, ball-buster and ball-breaker, both of which seemed to arise in America in the 1940s. Let's start first with "ball-breaker." Here is how the OED defines it.
a. A difficult, boring, or exasperating job, problem, or situation. b. A person who sets difficult work or problems; a hard taskmaster. c. A dominating woman, one who destroys the self-confidence of a man.
The dictionary gives five quotations illustrating the term, beginning in 1970, though it says the 1954 American Dictionary of Slang had an entry for it. Four of the five quotations illustrate definition c. above. The fifth is from the famed astronaut Neil Armstrong, who said (in 1970), "The quality control inspector is a sort of nitpicker. We're the ball breakers, in plain English. We're the most unwanted people." This is the sole example of definition b.
More common were quotations illustrating definition c. For example, a 1975 quotation has "Desiree is a ball-breaker. She eats men like your husband for breakfast." Or, from 1977, "Tom told me about that wife of his. A real ball-breaker, isn't she?" Finally, the adjective "ball-breaking" is attested in sense c. above, in the following 1976 quotation: "The women's movement is a bunch of ball-breaking bitches."
The OED defines "ball-buster" the same as the preceding word, "ball-breaker," but the two examples it gives are very much of the definition c. variety above. From 1980, "A woman who blames men or male society for anything, who complains, is seen as a...castrator, an Amazon, a ballbuster." Then, as with "ball-breaking," there is "ball-busting," which is attested as early as 1944, having less to do with women and more with a difficult task. "Connelly was coming to look upon shore patrol as merely a time-killer, a ball-busting detail, something a little less foolish than continual close order drill." The 1970s quotations, however, illustrate the sexist meaning given above for "ball-breaking."
What might that say about American culture? Both of the phrases entered into American English near the end of WWII or in the early 1950s and were of a non-sexual nature. Perhaps the "heavy lifting" of WWII and the single-sex military culture led to the development of the word. There was lots of hard, unremitting and apparently unredeemed labor by men. It simply was ball-busting. But then, the word seemed to take on a life of its own as the women's movement began to emerge in the early 1970s. As women became assertive they became not just "Amazons" or "bitches," but "ball-busters" or "ball-breakers." The word could then be used to describe not simply women who were active in the feminist movement but women whom men found objectionable for any of a number of reasons. But the OED definitions and usages stop at 1980. Lots has happened in our world in the quarter-century since then. What have the other dictionaries done?
The 1993 Webster's Third New International
This impressive unabridged, which is the standard one used in courts and academic libraries throughout the country, handled the issue in an interesting way: it completely ducked it. It has no entry for "ball-buster" or "ball-busting," and it defines "ball-breaker" in the following way:
"ball breaker: SKULL CRACKER." "Skull cracker: a heavy iron or steel ball swung or dropped by a derrick to demolish old buildings or compant bulky scrap for shipment--called also ball breaker, wrecking ball."
Isn't that utterly cool? You deal with an issue by ignoring the fact that it exists. But this dictionary doesn't ignore other issues; it has a wide variety of swear words/sexual slang in it, but it just seems to avoid the sexual meaning of "ball-breaker" or "ball-buster." Since this dictionary was being drafted/redrafted in the late 1980s and early 1990s, could the issue have been "too hot" to handle? Actually around that time, the end of the first generation of the modern feminist movement, the radical feminists very much had the upper hand philosophically and in areas of law, religion and the professions. What I mean by that is NOT that comparable worth was realized; I mean that even neanderthal men were admitting that there was no good reason why women shouldn't play leadership roles in the professions. So, this distinguished dictionary ducked the issue completely.
Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate (2003)
Now we are right up to date. Does this dictionary, which we are using at the Senior Bee, deal with the issue? You bet it does. It has "ball-buster" even though it doesn't have "ball-breaker." It defines the former as:
"sometimes vulgar: a person who is relentlessly aggressive, intimidating, or domineering."
Notice, remarkably, what has happened. The three definitions of the OED have been collapsed into one and any kind of exclusive sexual reference has been deleted. A "ball-breaker" is a "person" and not primarily a woman. Here is the real triumph of feminism. The term is not ignored (like the 1993 dictionary); it is dealt with in a straightforward but in a non- or asexual manner. That it is dealt with this way means that both male and females might be "ball-busters," rather than the concept doesn't exist in English. I dare say, however, that the word will continue to be used disproportionately to describe women. But, those usages will probably be increasingly in male-only events or locations (e.g., locker rooms). I bet that in our culture, hyper-aware of sensitivities these days, the word "ball-buster" will not be acceptable in the "work environment," even if it is used to describe a male boss. The word is just too charged at the present.
Maybe, if I ever apply for a job again, I should ask at the interview whether use of the word "ball-breaker" or "ball-buster" would get me fired at their institution. Perhaps the answer would be an index of our societal confidence (or lack thereof) in language and sexuality.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long