Pedal to the Metal, and other expressions for speed

Pedal to the Metal

I’m drivin’ a truck
Drivin’ a big ol’ truck
Pedal to the metal, hope I don’t run out of luck
Rollin’ down the highway until the break of dawn
Drivin’ a truck with my high heels on

Weird Al Yankovic, “Truck Driving Song”

The origin of this phrase is pretty irrelevant because it’s so obvious – you’ve got your accelerator pedal pressed down as far as it will go, all the way to the firewall.

Put the Hammer Down

This is essentially equivalent to “pedal to the metal.” It also appears in Weird Al’s lovely tribute to truckers:

My diesel rig is northward bound
It’s time to put that hammer down
Just watchin’ as the miles go flyin’ by
I’m ridin’ 20-tons of steel
But it’s sure hard to hold the wheel
While I’m still waiting for my nails to dry

Weird Al Yankovic, “Truck Driving Song”

Other expressions for speed are not as straightforward.

Balls to the Wall

Despite how you might be tempted to sexualize this phrase, it has nothing to do with enthusiastic reproduction. It’s an aviation term, originating at least from the ’60s and probably much earlier.

Notice the throttles with their round handles; when you have the need for speed, push those babies all the way to the control panel. Now one thing I learned when I was taking flying lessons in Key West in 1972 is that typically you shove those throttles forward when you want to go up; if you want to go faster, you point your nose down to reduce drag. That may seem counter-intuitive, but you get used to it. And you learn to juggle the two in such a way that you can put the plane where you want it to go, and at the speed you want at the same time.

Balls Out

Again, nothing to do with Harambe. Oh wait, that’s another expression. Well, still – this one is the steam engine version of “balls to the wall.” Old trains and industrial steam engines were equipped with centrifugal governors to regulate the speed of the device being controlled.

Those balls would spin around, and the faster they went, the farther out they would go because of centrifugal (or centripital, I dunno, dammit Jim I’m a linguist not an engineer) force, pulling a linkage to adjust the amount of steam being sent to the prime mover. So when the engine was going as fast as it could, those governor balls would be out as far as they could go, hence “balls out.”

Both Ears Down

This is an oldie but a goodie. If you’re not of a certain age, or an antique automobile enthusiast, you probably won’t be able to make heads or tails of this one.

The steering column of a Ford Model-T had two levers, one on either side.

Frontenac Auto Company

The one on the left adjusted the spark, and the one on the right was the throttle. In other words, the one on the right was your “gas pedal,” and the one on the left manually adjusted the timing of the spark (this was in a day before the self-adjusting distributor was invented.)

So the faster you went, the more you had to advance the spark to avoid engine knock, meaning both levers were gradually pulled downward as speed increased. Exactly how this was done is shown in the following schematic:

Notice that for maximum speed, (upper right-hand corner) both levers were down as far as they could go. Hence, “both ears down” came to mean pushing your brand-new Model-T to the max.

Rattle your dags

This one is exclusively Australian. Dags are matted clumps of wool and dung that hang off a sheep’s rear end… huge dingleberries, if you will. When a daggy sheep gets to running, those undulating gems make a rattling sound. Dag is descended from the British Daglock which was a dialect term borrowed into Australian English in the 1870’s. It essentially means “get a move on,” or “hurry up.”

I’m sure there are a lot of expressions out there that I don’t know, but these are some that always stuck in my mind.

The Old Wolf has spoken.¹


Footnotes

¹ Note: I’ve been saying this a lot longer than Kuiil has, but not as long as Chien Jaune.

One response to “Pedal to the Metal, and other expressions for speed

  1. Thanks for the interesting post. That reminds me of “mit Bleifuss fahren” [driver with a foot of lead], which, I think, is self-explaining.
    and among the sea rescue people it is, “die Hebel auf den Tisch legen” [put the levers on the table], when, for full speed, the throttle levers are pushed forward all the way until they are horizontal on the control panel.

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