Thursday, March 15, 2018

`A Weak High-Ball at His Side'

When I was a boy the word that effortlessly evoked adult sophistication, and thus envy, was a simple, old-fashioned Americanism, highball. I knew it meant an alcoholic drink, served to grownups in bars and bowling alleys, though its precise ingredients were a mystery. The word was a coded membership card, and I fancied someday telling a bartender: “Gimme a highball.”

I found highball again while looking through Horsefeathers and Other Curious Words (Harper & Brothers, 1958), written by Charles Earle Funk of Funk and Wagnalls fame. Funk Sr. died while finishing the book and his son, Charles Earle Funk Jr., completed it. I enjoy lingering in such books, the eccentric offspring of proper dictionaries. Knowing nothing about the etymology of highball, I was surprised by the Funks’ folksy entry for the word:

“There’s no doubt that this term has long been used by American railwaymen as that of a signal to the locomotive engineer to proceed. The signal itself was a ball large enough to be plainly visible which, when hoisted to the top of a mast at the approach to a small station, indicated that a train could proceed without stopping, that neither passenger, freight, nor express was awaiting it.”

The OED substantiates this: “a signal to proceed given to a train driver, originally by raising a ball attached to a pole. Now chiefly hist.” A slightly earlier usage was applied to a card game, highball poker. I already knew the word’s secondary meaning as a verb: to speed, to hurry along without hesitation, perhaps with a hint of recklessness: “We better highball it if we want to beat the crowd.” So how did the railway term morph into the name of a cocktail? The Funk explanation is unsatisfactory:

“Presumably this sense was somehow transferred to an iced alcoholic beverage about sixty years ago, but if so, the connection has not yet been determined. Possibly some passenger who had over-indulged in the beverage vaguely saw a resemblance between the floating ice at the top of the glass to the ball of the signal, and the tall glass to the mast.”

The OED offers an inclusive definition – “a drink of whisky and soda (or in later use other mixer, esp. ginger ale), served with ice in a tall, straight-sided glass. Later also (frequently with modifying word): any long mixed drink” – but no etymological explanation. One of the OED citations is to an article, “`Highball’ for `Tall Glass,’” in the February 1965 issue of the journal American Speech. The author, Thomas Pyles, proposes an alternative theory, one I can substantiate with reference to my maternal step-grandfather, James Aloysius Kelly: The Irish and Irish-Americans call a whiskey glass a ball, as in a “ball of malt.” This theory makes intuitive sense. Pyles adds, rather pedantically:

“It is interesting to note that in sophisticated drinking circles the term highball has become practically archaic, or in any case almost as non-U [middle-class], alcoholically speaking, as asking the way to `the little boys’ (or girls’) room.’ `Social’ drinkers continue to cover the taste of whiskey with ginger ale, Seven Up, and the like in what they refer to as a highball, but the illuminati ask for `whiskey and water’ or `Scotch and soda’ and refer to ice cubes simply as `ice,’ not as `rocks’.”

The OED redeems its etymological failure however, by citing P. G. Wodehouse’s Something Fresh (1915): “Beyond Baxter, a cigar in his mouth and a weak high-ball at his side, the Earl of Emsworth took his ease.”

[Of related interest: “beer and a bump,” meaning a shot of whisky and a beer chaser, better known as a boilermaker.]

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