Mind your language

Go ballistic

9 September 2017

9:00 AM

9 September 2017

9:00 AM

I had always thought that to go ballistic was the same as to go nuclear, metaphorically. But the ballistic figure of speech had a rather different origin. I was glad to learn this before Mr Kim sends the balloon up.

I did know, despite being a girl without the advantage of a proper classical education like the males in my family, that the Greek for ‘throw’ is ballein. Ballistic missiles take their name from a Latin derivative, the Roman ballista, an engine like a giant crossbow stretched with cords and thongs, and used to propel heavy bolts and other missiles. The adjectival form ballistica was coined only in the 17th century when Marin Mersenne, a brilliant French priest who came up with theorems about prime numbers and acoustics, looked at what he called phenomena ballistica.


Projectiles trace mathematically interesting courses through the air. A guided missile follows a trajectory less determined by gravity and inertia. Only if its guidance system breaks down does it become ungovernable and go ballistic. Such, anyway, was the meaning of the earliest example gathered by the Oxford English Dictionary from the Chicago Tribune, which noted in 1966 that ‘the SAM has a limiting factor in its ability to change course. If it exceeds these limits in trying to turn, it goes ballistic… It generally explodes in the air.’ Exploding in the air is a sufficiently vivid consequence of going ballistic for it to serve as a metaphor for losing one’s temper or going haywire. (A haywire outfit is another Americanism, taking for its image an apparatus held together by the wire used for binding hay bales.)

The English first took notice of the ballista in the days of Alfred the Great, to whom was attributed the translation of a history of the world by Paulus Orosius. In the English Orosius it has the form pallista, which made Professor Janet Bately suggest not so long ago that the translator must have been a Welshman (like Fluellen in Henry V). The ballista later produced the curiously agreeable-sounding word arbalast, also spelled arbalest, alablaste or even arowblaste, from the Latin arcusballista, ‘crossbow’. You wouldn’t want to be in range of an arbalaster or crossbowman who’d gone ballistic.

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