Going “ballistic”

The same Greek root of ballistic gives us such words as ballet, devil, parliament, and symbol.

On July 4th, North Korea successfully tested its first ICBM, or intercontinental ballistic missile. As intercontinental leaders figure how what to do next, let’s go ballistic—etymologically, that is.

A reconstructed ancient ballista, Latin source of the word ballistic. (Image from the Alexis Project, photo by Nick Watts).

An etymological “trajectory”

The abbreviation ICBM appears, unsurprisingly, during the Cold War. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests it in 1955, a few years before the Soviet Union successfully tested the first operational—and nuclear-armed—ones. The phrases ballistic rocket and ballistic missile are slightly older, according to the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, evidenced in 1949 and 1955, respectively.

To go ballistic—“to go out of control” or “become wildly angry”—is a figurative expression first found in 1981. The OED does cite an earlier, literal instance of go ballistic in 1966, used of a missile whose guidance system failed, resulting in an explosion. (I think this metaphor needs no further elaboration.)

In these instances, ballistic characterizes “projectiles,” an adjective in use since at least the 1760s and specifically concerned with firearms, hence forensic ballistics in police work. And ballistics— the “science of projectiles,” broadly—is indeed an older term, recorded as early as 1675.

Far-flung roots

Ballistics, modeled on the likes of economics, is based on the Latin ballista, an ancient cross-bow-like machine that hurled stones and other heavy objects. The term ballista, as a Latin loanword, is documented once in Old English and doesn’t reemerge until the 16th century, presumably re-borrowed.

Latin’s ballista is itself ultimately borrowed from the ancient Greek βαλλίζειν (ballizein), “to throw projectiles,” from βάλλειν (ballein), “to throw.” The noun βόλος (bolos), a “throwing,” is a related form. The English language definitely went ballistic, as it were, with these Greek roots: 

  • The Greek ballizein took on an extended sense of “to jump” or “throw the legs about,” which yielded ballare, or “dance,” in Latin. Via French, this verb ultimately provides a ball, as a “dancing party”; a ballad, originally a song that accompanied a dance; and ballet.
  • Devil comes from the Greek diabolos (diabolical), used to translate the Hebrew satan in ecclesiastical contexts. It’s from the verb diaballein, “to slander,” literally “to throw across.”
  • Palaver, parable, parabola, parley, parliament, and parlor all come from the Latin parabola, first “comparison” and then “explanatory illustration,” which evolved into various “speaking”-related verbs in the Romance language (cf., French parler). Latin’s parabola derives from the Greek parabole, literally a “throwing beside.”
  • Emblem is from ancient Greek roots literally meaning “throw into,” problem “throw forward,” and symbol “throw together.”
  • And the Ancient Greek metaballein, “change”—literally a kind of “throwing a change”— gives us metabolism. Anabolic (“throwing upward”) and catabolic (“throwing down”) are similar, Greek-derived constructions in science.

Etymological deterrence? 

Indo-European etymologists think Greek’s βάλλειν is rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *gwele-, which the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) explains as “throw, reach, with further meaning to pierce.” And down the Germanic branch of Proto-Indo-European, according to the AHD, the “piercing” sense of *gwele– ultimately yields the English kill and quail (“cower”)—which, in its own, uncanny etymological way, sounds like another way of saying mutually assured destruction.

If only etymology could intercept ICBMs. In the meantime, how about we just stop throwing things?

m ∫ r ∫


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