|earliest known usage
||(unknown, perhaps 1830s; documented to 1897)
||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.
- Association of American Railroads (October 1948). Names and Nicknames of Freight Trains Operated on Railroads of the United States. Transcription by Mike Pendergrass. Web. 15 Sept. 2015. (other uses)
- Association of American Railroads (July 1972). Names and Nicknames of Freight Trains. Transcribed and republished by the National Model Railroad Association (October 1999) as Data Sheet D9h: Names and Nicknames of Freight Trains. Web. 15 Sept. 2015. (other uses)
- Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh Railway (March 1919). "The Origin of 'High Ball'." Employes Magazine [sic]. p. 30. Google Books. Web. 15 Sept. 2015. (origin)
- Cassidy, Frederick G., and Joan H. Hall, eds. Dictionary of American Regional English. Vol. 2: D-H. p. 993.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991. Print. (definition)
- The Federal Reporter. Vol. 157. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Company, 1908. Google Books. 11 July 2007. Web. 14 Sept. 2015. (usage)
- Green, Jonathon (2005) . Cassell's Dictionary of Slang. pp. 62 and 712. London: The Orion Publishing Group. ISBN 0-304-366366. Google Books. Web. 15 Sept. 2015. (definition and other uses)
- Henry, Robert Selph (1946). This Fascinating Railroad Business. pp. 165 and 179. Bobbs-Merrill Company. Google Books. 9 Nov. 2005. Web. 15 Sept. 2015. (origin)
- "Highball." Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 15 Sept. 2015. (origin)
- "Highball." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 15 Sept. 2015. (definition)
- Mencken, H. L. (March 1988) [August 1945]. American Language Supplement 1. pp. 161-162. 14th edition. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Google Books. Web. 15 Sept. 2015. (drink name origin)
- "Penn Central Company, Collision of Trains N-48 and N-49." National Transportation Safety Board, 14 Oct. 1970. Web. 15 Sept. 2015. (usage)
- Reports of Cases Decided in the Appellate Courts of the State of Illinois. Vol. 68. p. 146: Callaghan, 1897. Google Books. 20 Nov. 2014. Web. 14 Sept. 2015. C. B. & Q. R. R. Co. v. Libey. (definition)
- Richter, Frank. The Renaissance of the Railroad: A Chronicle of the Transformation of the Century. pp. 166-167. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2005. Google Books. Web. 15 Sept. 2015. (origin)
- Smith, Andrew F., ed. (2007). The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. p. 279. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-530796-2. Google Books. Web. 15 Sept. 2015. (other uses)
- The Southwestern Reporter. Vol. 145. p. 123.: West Publishing Company, 1912. Google Books. 3 Aug. 2007. Web. 14 Sept. 2015. Butts v. Gaar-Scott & Co. (definition)
- Tompkins, Dr. E. Berkeley (March 12, 1973). "National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form: Highball Signal." United States National Park Service, 1973. Web. 15 Sept. 2015. (definition and origin)
- Union Pacific Railroad (July 31, n.y.). "New Union Pacific Computerized Train Dispatching System." PR Newswire. Web. 15 Sept. 2015. (origin)
- United States Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration (October 1999). Compliance with Railroad Operating Rules and Corporate Culture Influences. p. 10. Springfield, VA: National Technical Information Service. Web. 15 Sept. 2015. (usage)