We’ve had yet another month of record-breaking temperatures—and a corresponding spike in Google searches for hot as balls, a phrase that’s gotten popular as balls (mostly in the U.S.) in the past 10 years or so. Although Urban Dictionary has an entry for the phrase from 2001, it became undeniably mainstream five years later during the heatwave of 2006. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan created this video in response to the scorching weather that year:
(Here’s their 2012 sequel):
Tagging along with hot as balls is its slightly less popular cousin, cold as balls. You can see them alternating seasonally on Google Trends:
The X as balls construction is interesting, because the set of adjectives that X can be is—for now, anyway—smaller than the set that works with as hell, as shit, or as fuck. You can be polite as fuck or impatient as hell, but polite as balls and impatient as balls, while hilarious, don’t convey the same urgency, extremity, or standard of comparison. With some exceptions, like this quote from The Wire episode “Boys of Summer”—
Det. Thomas “Herc” Hauk: [after Council President Nareese Campbell walks by] Council President’s hot as balls!
—hot as balls and cold as balls typically describe actual temperatures and are used less often in figurative senses of hot and cold.
The difference between X as balls and Y as fuck, Y as shit, and Y as hell is that although they all look like similes, only X as balls functions as one. We learned in school that simile is a figure of speech that compares two things using like or as. Although linguists haven’t studied simile as profoundly as they have metaphor, possibly because it seems blander and more straightforward, they have made some nuanced observations that we weren’t taught in junior high English.
Both similes and metaphors have a tenor (usually the subject) and a vehicle (what the subject is compared to). The ground is the quality common to both. In metaphor, the ground is implied. In (as) [adjective] as [noun] similes, the ground is made explicit. So in “The weather’s (as) hot as balls,” weather is the tenor, balls the vehicle, and hot the ground. Simile is figurative, comparing two fundamentally different things, so direct, literal comparisons can’t be similes: “The tumor was as big as a grapefruit,” for example, isn’t a simile because it directly compares the size of the tumor with the size of the grapefruit, and a grapefruit’s bigness isn’t its defining characteristic.
Of all [adjective] as [swearword] constructions, Y as hell is the oldest. We know that Shakespeare used it—in Hamlet:
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays.
Patience, thou young and rose-lipp’d cherubin,—
Ay, there, look grim as hell!
and in Twelfth Night:
MALVOLIO: I say, this house is as dark as ignorance, though
ignorance were as dark as hell; and I say, there
was never man thus abused. I am no more mad than you
are: make the trial of it in any constant question.
among other works.
It also shows up in the writing of Richard Rolle of Hampole (1290?–1349):
…in nane other thyng fyndes ioy & comforth. In þis degre es lufe stalworth as dede, & hard as hell. (The Commandment)
For the most part, early uses of as hell highlight a feature that is prototypically hellish—hot as hell, dark as hell, deep as hell, terrible as hell—so for several centuries Y as hell had the characteristics of a bona fide simile. But in the earliest twentieth century, its use exploded, and it began admitting adjectives like clever, happy, funny, and scared. Hell had stopped being purely a vehicle for the simile, and as hell took on its present-day intensifying function. Rosamund Moon, who wrote “Conventionalized As-Similes in English,” published in the International Journal of Corpus Linguistics (2008), calls as hell an emphatic particle and doesn’t really consider it a simile. In “On simile,” published in Language, Culture, and Mind (2004), authors Israel, Harding, and Tobin say that in (as) X as [vehicle] constructions:
… the source concept [another term for vehicle] can remain almost entirely unspecified without compromising the semantic import of the simile as a whole. For instance, idioms like “as X as anything,” “as X as you want,” “as X as hell,” and “as X as all get out” are essentially conventional formulae for the expression of a superlative judgment by means of an otherwise vacuous comparison.
In other words, that arrangement of words itself, when the vehicle seems like a non sequitur, is what carries the connotation of very or extremely.
Unlike as hell, as shit and as fuck were born as emphatic particles, not as similes, probably because they were both dysphemisms for as hell. According to the Google Books corpus and the Corpus of Historical American English, as shit admitted adjectives like sure, funny, vivid, and naked from the outset when it proliferated in writing in the 1950s and ’60s. It never started off as a figurative comparison to feces. As fuck was similarly inclusive from the outset, although it got going a slight bit later.
Which brings us back to as balls. It seems to have begun life not as a euphemism of as hell, as shit, or as fuck but as a simile in its own right—and it’s better that way, because similes, unlike emphatic particles, are truly evocative. If you hear hot as balls, you might picture someone having to unstick a sweaty scrotum from their inner thigh. And it’s easy to imagine sagging wrinkliness when someone says old as balls.
People are beginning to use more unexpected adjectives with as balls. The Corpus of Global Web-Based English has instances of such phrases as hungry as balls, boring as balls, and expensive as balls. The incongruity of these adjectives adds to the humor because we still picture testicles when we encounter the phrases. But if we let as balls go the way of as hell, it’ll eventually be used mainly as an emphatic particle rather than a pure simile, and we’ll inevitably lose some of that evocative imagery.