Lexicon Valley

Did Bill Simmons Get Fired for “Testicular Fortitude”? Where Does the Phrase Come From?

Sports writer Bill Simmons.

Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images the New Yorker

The long and contentious relationship between Bill Simmons and his employer, ESPN, came to an end on Friday, and the last straw may have been his use of a two-word phrase: testicular fortitude.

On Thursday, Simmons blasted NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on The Dan Patrick Show over the release of the Deflategate report. “He knows the results before the report is released to the public,” Simmons said, “and yet he doesn’t have the testicular fortitude to do anything until he gauges public reaction.”

The termination of Simmons’ contract was announced the following day, and, though ESPN president John Skipper won’t say whether the “testicular fortitude” comment had anything to do with the timing of the announcement, James Andrew Miller, co-author of the ESPN oral history Those Guys Have All the Fun, thought it was the “tipping point.”

Deadspin notes that Simmons has frequently used the phrase in the past and chalks up this predilection to his love of pro wrestling. Testicular fortitude was a favorite expression of WWE’s Mick Foley in the late 1990s, when he was known to wrestling fans as Mankind.

But even before Foley got hold of it, testicular fortitude had circulated for decades as a playful anatomical euphemism—for balls, stones, cojones, or what have you. And we may have the malaprop-prone pitcher-turned-announcer Dizzy Dean to thank for it.

The original kind of euphemistic “fortitude” was of the “intestinal” variety. Believe it or not, there was a time when guts was considered an indecent term. In the 19th century, innards served as a polite alternative. By 1893, when John S. Farmer published Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present, the coarse word guts had developed a more metaphorical meaning: “spirit; quality; a touch of force or energy, or fire.” The adjective gutsy followed suit, meaning “tough, spirited, courageous.”

Even in the early 20th century, the word guts retained enough of a whiff of impropriety for arch euphemisms to emerge. In a 1955 article in the journal American Speech, Tom Burns Haber reported that the phrase intestinal fortitude was coined as an alternative to the courageous kind of guts by John Wilce, a professor of clinical medicine at Ohio State University who also coached the Buckeyes football team beginning in 1913. Wilce told Haber that he came up with the phrase on a streetcar ride early in his coaching career, and he first tried it out in a lecture to his football squad.

In 1916, Coach Wilce said he used intestinal fortitude in a speech at a banquet celebrating OSU’s undefeated season and first-ever conference championship. He recalled feeling that he was “starting something” by launching the phrase and “hesitating about first using it at a public function for fear of being thought ‘high hat.’ ”

The newly minted term must have spread quickly, as it began appearing in national newspapers within five years of Wilce’s speech. The earliest example I’ve come across is from a column in the March 17, 1921, issue of the Rockford (Illinois) Republic:

Supt. of Schools E.E. Lewis Tuesday at the Kiwanis club spoke on the democratizing of education. He told of his trip to Atlantic City where high-brows were not willing to use that rather ugly word, “guts,” meaning stamina and courage. It is a militant, raw-as-life word that gained vogue during the war. However, educators at Atlantic City were not willing to let go of that valuable asset suggested by this ugly word so they got a refined substitute and called it “intestinal fortitude.”

Intestinal fortitude soon became a staple of sports commentary, even as the need to euphemize guts faded. But its seven Latinate syllables were a bit of a mouthful. It must have been too much for the great pitcher Dizzy Dean, who famously mangled the English language in his second career as a sports commentator.

Dean started out on radio, and as early as 1946 came under fire from schoolteachers complaining to the FCC about his “errors of grammar and syntax” and his “bad influence” on students. While many “Dizzyisms” were nonstandard forms from his Arkansan dialect (slud as the past tense of slide, throwed as the past tense of throw), Dean was also notorious for his malapropisms, as in “The runners held their respectable bases,” or “Musial stands confidentially at the plate.”

He moved to television in the early 1950s, calling the “Game of the Week” broadcasts first for ABC and then for CBS. According to several baseball histories, Dean made one of his more colorful comments about New York Yankees pitcher Eddie Lopat. Here’s how Mike Shropshire recounted it in his book The Last Real Season:

“I’ll tell ya’ why Eddie Lopat gets ’em out. It ain’t his natural stuff, he couldn’t break a wind-er pane, but he’s got testicle fortitude.”

Substituting testicle for intestinal was a classic Dizzy malaprop, somewhat close in sound and sense but just off enough to be hilarious. And of course it must have been quite memorable for any kid to hear Dean utter testicle on live television in the ’50s.

But the beauty of the Dizzy-fied version is that it suggested a new euphemistic basis for the phrase. While guts had become unremarkable, declaring that a bold or vigorous person had balls was still beyond the pale. (D.H. Lawrence had broken the taboo in Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “You say a man’s got no brain, when he’s a fool: and no heart, when he’s mean … And when he’s got none of that spunky wild bit of a man in him, you say he’s got no balls. When he’s a sort of tame.”)

With Dean’s testicle changed to the adjective testicular, the old intestinal fortitude euphemism was properly updated. The earliest print reference on Google Books, from Frank Yerby’s 1971 novel The Dahomean, combined the two: “But there is something infinitely admirable about sheer nerve, about the possession of both intestinal and testicular fortitude, or to put it more politely, of valor and manhood both.”

And in the April 4, 1974, issue of Jet, civil rights leader Julian Bond, then a member of the Georgia House of Representatives, had this to say about the Watergate charges against President Nixon: “The President has got to go but … Congress hasn’t got the testicular fortitude to get rid of him.”

If Simmons’ use of testicular fortitude did indeed contribute to his firing, ESPN is being remarkably prim. Even the straitlaced New York Times used the phrase nine times before the Simmons story broke. (Granted, one of those times was in a column by me.) No doubt more significant than the phrasing was the cumulative effect of Simmons’ slams against Goodell, whom he once called a “liar.” For ESPN, this behavior was a bit too ballsy—ironic, given that Deflategate is all about, um, balls.