Tribune Print Share Text

Where'd that phrase come from #67

Created date

June 30th, 2014

The 3rd degree

To give someone the 3rd degree is to subject them to an intense line of questioning. Usually, the term is used in reference to a police interrogation, but its origins actually stem from Freemasonry.

Specifically, to rise to the rank of a 3rd Degree Mason, one first has to fulfill a rigorous set of requirements as well as a taxing initiation process. From this ritual, we get the phrase “giving someone the 3rd degree.”

“If you testify on Capitol Hill, you should know that the committee will give you the 3rd degree about your agency’s activities.”

Balls to the wall

This phrase comes from World War II aviation. In everyday conversation, when someone says that they did something “balls to the wall,” it essentially means that they went all out, full throttle. If you look inside the cockpit of a World War II fighter plane, it’s clear why.

The throttle and fuel mixture controls, located immediately to the pilot’s left, were often topped with ball-shaped grips. When you pushed these handles forward to go faster, you moved the ball grips closer to the cockpit’s front wall—hence, “balls to the wall.”

“With my deadline rapidly approaching, I had to go balls to the wall on the project to complete it on time.”

(Come on) like gangbusters

In the heyday of radio, Gangbusters was a popular primetime detective thriller. Anyone who tuned in knew just when it started because the show always opened with the explosion of gunshots and the blaring of sirens.

In fact, it came on with such noise that its title quickly became a euphemism for anything or anyone that matched its jarring quality, either in force or volume.

“When I was on the stand for cross-examination, the defense attorney came on like gangbusters, bombarding me with hostile questions.”

No man’s land

World War I was a trench war unlike any that mankind had ever witnessed. For extended periods, both sides dug in and stayed put. The distance between the opposing forces was called “no man’s land,” literally because no man—German, British, French, or Italian—wanted to venture there. If they did, they likely would have been torn to shreds by machinegun fire.

Today, the phrase refers to places where no one wants to go—more generally, of course.

“There’s a reason why you won’t find many people at the North Pole. The place is a no man’s land; given the conditions, it’s virtually uninhabitable.”