ball and chain



The expression ball and chain appeared in the USA to denote a heavy metal ball secured by a chain to a person’s leg to prevent escape or as a punishment. Nile’s Weekly Register (Baltimore) of 12th December 1818 published the minutes of the proceedings of a court martial which convicted Robert Christy Ambrister of exciting hostile Indians to war against the United States:

The court [...] sentence the prisoner, Robert C. Ambrister, to suffer death, by being shot, two-thirds of the court concurring therein.
One of the members of the court requesting a reconsideration of his vote on the sentence, the sense of the court was taken thereon, and decided in the affirmative, when the vote was again taken, and the court sentence the prisoner to receive fifty stripes on his bare back, and be confined with a ball and chain to hard labour, for twelve calendar months.

The expression came to be used figuratively to denote an encumbrance, as in this passage from Whom shall we Marry!, published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (New York) of November 1854:

Wives, we are inclined to think, are less eager to enjoy their independence than to assert it. They do not cast off altogether the ball and chain of their matrimonial bonds, but show themselves so restless, that they keep their legal guardians in a state of constant suspicion and anxiety, lest they should escape and fly to the refuge of the bosom of some of their numerous admirers.

In the American magazine Collier’s: The National Weekly of 25th June 1921, ball and chain was used in the sense of wife:

He is a great big, fat, loudmouthed four-flusher with a too hearty laugh. He deliberately attempts to commit suicide by askin’ me “How’s the ball and chain?” meanin’ my wife.

In Sharking (1999), the British novelist Sophie Stewart used the expression to mean boyfriend:

“You want fun and all you get is videos and take-away curries. Ave you got a ball n chain?”
“No.” Even the idea of me having a boyfriend seemed uproariously farcical.

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