Intestinal fortitude

On a pleasanter note, Ron Lindsay has a post suggesting dropping the word “balls” for “courage” and the like. Yes to that. I generally pick fights with people who do that here, and sometimes elsewhere.

More dogmatic feminism, I suppose.


  1. says

    One might argue that “balls” is used so often that it’s lost its gender-specific connotations. I don’t buy that argument—and isn’t that argument similar to what we hear, and reject, from the religious fundies? “Oh, the word ‘God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance has lost any religious significance” or “the cross has become a secular symbol.” We don’t think religious terms lose their significance just because they’re repeated frequently; why should we think slang loses its gender reference just because it’s repeated frequently?

    Excellent point.

  2. Captain Mike says

    There are situations where I will buy the idea that a word has lost enough of its association with a gender to be rendered unisex, but the use of “balls” is not one of them.

    They’re MALE GONADS, ffs.

  3. Melody says

    I don’t have balls and I don’t want anyone saying I have them. Perhaps it’s easy for some men to think it’s lost gender-specific connotations if he thinks ‘male’ is the default.

  4. Mike says

    SC (Salty Current), OM:

    It’s a terrible point. That’s not what fundies claim! It’s beyond ridiculously to act like “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance has retained much meaning at all, or to act like very religious people favor it for its lack of meaning.

  5. says

    It’s a terrible point. That’s not what fundies claim!

    Well, it’s what Antonin Scalia and others claim. “Fundies” probably wasn’t the best word choice, but I knew what he meant.

    It’s beyond ridiculously to act like “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance has retained much meaning at all, or to act like very religious people favor it for its lack of meaning.

    I don’t think they do believe in its loss of religious connotations. I think they like to argue that. (And I strongly disagree that religious symbols and language like crosses and “under God”* have lost their religious connotations.) I think it’s the same thing with the gendered language we’ve discussed: few of those arguing that it’s lost its gendered connotations really believe that, which they often proceed to demonstrate during the arguments themselves. That claim is just a ploy to defend their continued use of the language. Many of these are the same people who don’t accept the arguments about crosses really standing for everyone, so it’s a good parallel example.

    *Inserted in the 20th century specifically for the purpose of adding religion.

  6. CGM3 says

    Eh, I’ve always preferred the expression “he/she’s got sand” (which I think I picked up from an old Western movie). Let’s use that instead.

  7. Deepak Shetty says

    I’ll plead guilty to using the expression myself.(Balls! was also used as a substitute for nonsense! but I wonder how that started)

    I suppose Ill have to start using the Hindi equivalent which loosely translates to “strength in your ass”

  8. Sili says

    Rebecca Watson and co. talked about how fragile balls really are, while in Köln.

    There was a suggestion of using the biologically egalitarian “gonads” instead.

    I like it.

    But then, I would.

  9. David says

    ‘nads, is a good one. He/She’s got nads . Does that work? But where do we stand on “Balls! As an expletive used in conjucntion with a minor cock up. And dont even get me started on spunk.

  10. penn says

    I usually don’t use balls, but I do use the phrase “Grow a pair.” I think that’s gender neutral since it can refer to any set of gonads, or a pair of anything.

  11. Great American Satan says

    And for Spanish speakers huevos is interesting because it’s taking about dude parts (or as we call them in this house, bing-bongs) but using something that literally means “eggs.”

    So…. Agreed in principle but sure I’ll fail in practice sometimes. Not often though. A lot of times someone would say “balls” I like to say “gall,” or “temerity” just to be fancy, and the other kind of courage isn’t that common.

  12. Feddlefew says

    I use “Nads”, personally, because it’s sex neutral.

    It’s lead to awkward conversations in which I explain that all female mammals* are born with their own pair of gonads.

    *Birds have only one nad, and I while I think two is the norm for most chordates I’m not certain about the others.

  13. Greta Christina says

    When I’m talking specifically about women, I’ll sometimes say, “She’s got ovaries.”

    But yes. Ron is right. I don’t like the word “balls” to mean courage, any more than I like to word “pussy” to mean “coward.” And for the same reason.

  14. Atticus_of_Amber says

    I’ve been known to say that someone doesn’t have the ovaries – ever since a woman responded to me saying she didn’t have teh balls to do X by, later in the conversation, suggesting I didn’t have the ovaries to do Y.

    But perhaps something more gender-neutral like gonads, nads or guts is better.

  15. Emptyell says

    When I was growing up the term was backbone. As in “Grow a backbone!”, “She shows some real backbone.”, etc. It sounds better than spine and carries the connotation of hard work, ie “Put your back to it.”

    On the other hand I do like the British term bollocks. When guys use them to do their thinking nonsense (or worse) is the usual result.

  16. Charles Sullivan says

    I would maintain that there is a difference between having courage and having balls. Sometimes it takes a lot of courage (and no balls really) to visit a dying friend or family member in a hospice.

    Courage is not solely a martial virtue, or a male virtue.

    It takes courage to speak publicly before an audience, This courage isn’t naturally military or male (but culturally).

  17. outeast says

    OK, I’m sure no one will agree with me here but I kinda feel that the phrase has two uses… One is certainly the good old-fashioned sexist ‘It takes a real man’ kinda thing, which I’d be happy to see bite the dust if it wasn’t that these things are useful indicators of attitude. But the other, to my mind, is that ‘having balls’ is not the courage that comes with any degree of self-knowledge, or intelligence – not courage at all really – but the mindless bravery and disregard for consequences that comes with having a massive and totally unjustified sense of one’s own superiority (as in uses like ‘well he must have balls the size of coconuts, i’ll give you that’). No, it’s not gender neutral in the least. But I think it’s rather apposite.

  18. rork says

    By Darwin’s liver, I did not think pussy referred to female genitalia when used to express cowardliness, but rather to genus Felix. Wikipedia suggests both those origins may be wrong. I failed to get to the bottom of it.

  19. says

    Still wrestling with this. Some of my favorite expressions were about balls, but I can in no way dispute the blatantly sexist expression of “balls” as equivalent to courage.

    Here’s a depressing thought; I tried swapping in “gonads” as others have suggested, and was met with puzzlement.

    “… gonads? You mean BALLS? Why don’t you just say ‘balls’?”

    “‘Balls’ are generally specific to testicles. Gonads can refer to either male or female physiology.”

    “What? Women don’t have gonads.”

    I’ve heard this from some otherwise very intelligent and educated people.

  20. rork says

    Yes Ophelia, I’ve heard of pussy-whipped, and imagine I know the meaning and origin, but do not admit to know it is related to calling someone a pussy (as in meek, cowardly, whimpy).

  21. Stacy says

    I did not think pussy referred to female genitalia when used to express cowardliness, but rather to genus Felix

    By Hypatia’s girdle, rork, genus Felis are not cowards, though some of them hew to the axiom that discretion is the better part of valor!


    (Apparently, Betty, cool as she is, didn’t say this, and the kudos go to Hal Sparks.)

  22. says

    To be fair, “he’s just a pussycat” is (was?) also an expression meaning a pushover, easy of acquiescence, not dangerous. Nobody’s really sure of the etymology, and the suggestion that the weakness insult originated totally separately from the use for genitals is totally plausible.

    In my lifetime and culture, I’ve seen the ‘cat’ meaning decline very significantly under the influence of the very powerful US ‘female genitalia’ meaning. (It was also UK usage, but not so dominant, just one of many terms.) I doubt anyone sings “I love little pussy” any more, but I learned it in primary school. Mrs Slocombe’s double entendre use is rapidly turning into single entendres.

    Etymology is not prescriptive of current use, of course. Just rambling because I like etymology.

  23. trazan says

    Don’t testicles make you very vulnerable? Wouldn’t people be even more willing to put themselves in dangerous, violent situations with their gonads well protected inside the body?

  24. rork says

    Thanks Alethea. I agree that etymology is not destiny, and doesn’t dictate what I envision when I hear or utter a thing today. I want certainty, but rarely get it.

    Chipmunk: from early American settlers imagining these lordly mammals as monks of the wood chips. Or not.
    Bellwether: contraction from the French phrase for clear skies.
    Embarrass: having pants fall down in public. (Just try finding the true etymology for that one. From Italian imbarrazzare, or Portuguese embaraçar? )

  25. fastlane says

    Wasn’t the ‘original’ (and I use that very loosely) something like ‘big, brass balls’? As in, they must clank together….??

    The metaphor doesn’t really work with that particular idiom when using other bits of anatomy.

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