highball

variants high-ball
high ball
region North America
earliest known usage (unknown, perhaps 1830s; documented to 1897)
used by railfans and railroaders

noun: a signal indicating a clear track ahead. "Dispatch gave us the highball."
verb: proceed at full speed. "It's time to highball out of here."

This term's origin is based on the "high ball" signal that was introduced in New England in the early 19th century. At least one source (Employes Magazine, March 1919, p. 30) indicates that the high ball signals were first used in England, while at least one other (Henry, 1946, p. 165) attributes the first high ball signal to railroad companies that are named in the text as "Frenchtown Railroad" and "Newcaslte & Frenchtown", presumably both references to the New Castle and Frenchtown Turnpike and Railroad Company (NC&F) which opened in Delaware in 1831, and installed the first high ball signal in 1832. The signal consisted of a large ball mounted on a chain or cable; when the ball was raised to the upper or high position, the signal indication was proceed.  In a press release about installing new signalling systems, Union Pacific Railroad sggests the high ball signal originated in the 1860s.  One of the last examples of this type of signal used by American railroads was entered onto the National Register of Historic Places on July 2, 1973; at that time it was no longer in use but preserved as a display in a park in Delmar, Delaware.  The NC&F noted above was located at the northern end of Delaware, while the town of Delmar is located on the southern border of Delaware.

After the term entered the general lexicon, it sometimes saw use as a name for trains to imply that the trains were fast and made few stops between their termini.  Freight train nickname examples include the Highball operated by Great Northern Railway between Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon; and the High Ball operated by Baltimore & Ohio Railroad between Benwood, West Virginia, and Holloway, Ohio, as well as between Fairmont and Clarksburg, West Virginia.  Additionally, Jonathan Green (2005, p. 62) suggests that highball may have been part of the origin for the phrase "ball the jack" which originally was lumberjack jargon that meant to drive a logging train very fast.

The drink known as a highball was first documented in the late 1890s.  By this time the railroad term had been in wide usage for decades but it is unclear if the drink name was derived from the railroad term described above. H.L. Mencken (1988, pp. 161-162) suggests that the drink name is derived from the type of glass that was used rather than from the railroad term. But another source (Smith, 2007, p. 279) describes the accounts of two barmen in the 1890s who claimed to have invented the drink and based the name on the railroad term both because of the speed that the drink could be mixed and the short time that railroad employees had to consume it while on break.


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