Note: This version is from Quarterly Update 3.
ball the jack v phr [The phrase was popularized by a dance-song hit of 1913; both the basic steps and the term appear to be older, though there is no direct evidence for this. The explanation given in quot 1968 at 1 below is possible, but there is no other evidence for the alleged “railroad expression.”]
1 To perform a particular dance involving vigorous hip motions; hence vbl n balling the jack. orig among Black speakers
1913 Freeman (Indianapolis IN) 22 Feb 6/3 NC [Black], A commendable feature of the program was the absence of vulgarity. . . While Miss Winston was dancing there were repeated calls from the audience, “Ball the jack!” “Put it over, kid!” “Let us have it!” She smilingly refused to acquiesce to these requests. 1914 Ibid 2 May 4/3 TX [Black], If you can’t come with the clean acts frosty will be yours. “Balling the Jack” acts do not please everybody here. Original, well costumed and energetic workers can stay a long time. 1916 Variety 3 Nov 20, According to Variety’s New Orleans correspondent. . . [l]ittle negro tots were “Balling the Jack” in New Orleans over ten years ago. 1934 Natl. Geogr. Mag. 65.253 GA coast, Nine-year-old Isaac rolled up his long trouser legs and began “balling the jack,” while one of his sisters provided the cadence by clapping her hands. 1946 Portsmouth Times (OH) 24 Sept 10/5, Remember when . . . “Balling the Jack” was as popular as jitterbugging and just as crazy? 1959 Lomax Rainbow Sign 35 AL [Black], Meanwhile some old boy be just ballin-the-jack and cuttin up dancin. 1963 Wright Lawd Today 93 Chicago IL [Black], Suddenly she stopped, cut a few steps from the Charleston, Balled the Jack, crooned snatches from a popular blues song, and tripped off softly in perfect time to the music. 1968 Stearns–Stearns Jazz Dance 98, The perennial favorite, “Ballin’ the Jack,” which was a hit in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1913, was composed and written by two Negroes, Chris Smith and Jim Burris, and published in Harlem. . . The phrase ballin’ the jack, according to Professor Willis Laurence James, is a railroad expression. Jack is the name given to the locomotive by the Negro folk . . , while ballin’ comes from high balling, the trainman’s hand signal to start rolling. . . The Negro folk had been dancing the various steps incorporated in “Ballin’ the Jack” for many years, and Negro professionals had picked them up long before the song was published. “Why, I used to do that dance as a kid,” says Eddie Rector. . . Perry Bradford says he first heard the name around 1909 in Texas. . . [T] the words of “Ballin’ the Jack” constitute capsule choreography: First you put your two knees close up tight / Then you sway ’em to the left, then you sway ’em to the right / Step around the floor kind of nice and light / Then you twis’ around and twis’ around with all your might / Stretch your lovin’ arms straight out in space / Then you do the Eagle Rock with style and grace / Swing your foot way ’round then bring it back / Now that’s what I call ‘Ballin’ the Jack’. 1968–70 DARE (Qu. FF5a, . . Different steps and figures in dancing—in past years) Infs SC10, 26, Ball the jack; KY23, 92, MS86, Ball and (the) jack; NC49, Balling the jack. [4 of 6 Infs Black] 1972 Jones–Hawes Step it Down 44 eGA [Black], Ball the Jack—Holding the legs together from foot to hip, rotate the knees in a circle; this obviously rotates the hips also.
2 To move rapidly; to do anything with speed or vigour. esp Sth, Midl
1914 Robesonian (Lumberton NC) 29 June 1/3, East Lumberton News Notes. . . Officer Departs. . . The officer . . some time ago heard that Mr. Stone had trial set for Saturday last, and he “balled the jack” for Danville, Va. The trial came up, but there was no evidence to convict Mr. Stone, so it was dismissed. c1925 in 1944 ADD nWV, The car certainly did ball the jack. 1929 Bee (Danville VA) 12 Apr 1/5, J. M. Pleasants reported the presence of the ’plane stating that it was at an estimated altitude between 2,500 and 3,000 feet and “balling the jack.” 1931 AmSp 7.53 Sth, SW, “Ballin’ the jack” and “railroadin’ without steam” mean going fast. 1935 in 1953 Botkin–Harlow Treas. Railroad Folkl. 232, I can make out the sparks from the two engines. That is why she is balling the jack so much. . . She won’t lose any time going where she is going. 1938 Galveston Daily News (TX) 10 Apr 19/4, Sun Oil Co.’s semi-wild Broussard & Hebert No. 3 at Labelle in central Jefferson County yesterday was still balling the jack at the rate of 1000 barrels of distillate a day. c1960 Wilson Coll. csKY, Ball the jack—move swiftly, a term often used for a train that goes fast. 1962 AmSp 37.131 nCA, ’Ballin’ the Jack. . . A logging train that is highballing or making a fast run. 1968–70 DARE (Qu. FF18, . . “They certainly _____last night.”) Inf PA175, Balled the jack; (Qu. KK29, To start working very hard: “He was slow at first but now he’s really _____.”) Inf IL116, Ballin’ the jack. 1970 Major Dict. Afro-Amer. Slang, Balling the Jack. . . To work swiftly. 1995 Brophy Coll. 3 swMO (as of c1960), Ball the jack.[T]o work hard or go fast. [U]sed by truckers but probably of older origin.
3 To move in a conspicuous manner.
1970 DARE (Qu. Y22, To move around in a way to make people take notice of you: “Look at him _____.”) Inf IL116, Ball the jack.
4 To be the last straw.
1968 DARE (Qu. GG22b, When you come to the end of your patience, you might say, “Well, that certainly _____.”) Inf PA175, Balls the jack.