but we’ve got the biggest balls of them all

Talking with a very good friend of mine last week, we mentioned a mutual female acquaintance whom, I said, “had the ovaries to pull something like that off.”

“Huh?” my friend asked.

“Like saying, ‘she had the balls to pull it off.’ Only, y’know, ovaries.”

“Right, right; I got that.” I still got the quizzical look, though.

“I figured it’s diminutive to refer to a woman as ‘having balls’ to do something because she’s confident. ‘Oh, congratulations at having presence. You’ve been promoted to ‘Male.’ ”

“I’m with you,” my friend said. “But at the same time, I’m not comfortable with females getting special female-only titles that distinguish them from male roles. Like ‘actress,’ which is the same thing as an actor, but female. As if there’s some inherent difference in a woman’s performance than a man’s.”

“Fair enough,” I said.

(We settled on cojones, which means “balls” but is obscured by the language barrier and retains neutrality)

But the question lingers in my mind.

There’s a wealth of jargon in English to encourage someone to take bold action, and all of it points at a guy’s crotch. A guy with confidence has “balls”; astonishing confidence, “big brass ones.” Someone who needs to show confidence is told to “sack up” or “grow a pair”; someone who lacks confidence is a “pussy.” One of my favorite lines from The French Connection comes when an American mobster needs to convince his boss that French druglord Alain Charnier is a cold-hearted operator. “This guy’s got ’em like THAT!”, the mobster yells, making a cupping motion under his crotch. It’s a guttural, striking image, and it conveys the message in a heartbeat.

So how do you describe a woman with confidence? Let’s ignore for the moment the tendency of many people to refer to women exhibiting confidence, a refusal to be interrupted or a low tolerance for errors as “bitchy.” Not because that’s not a problem, mind, but because that’d be its own 1000-word post. For now, let’s settle on the problem of language.

We can’t erase ten thousand years of linguistic development, so we can’t get people to stop referring to confidence as “ballsy.” That’s not an option. So our remaining options appear to be:


  1. Appropriate that language for women as well, reproductive irony be damned. That chick’s got balls; you see that?
  2. Invent parallel language for women. Doubting yourself isn’t going to get the job done. Now egg up and get back out there.
  3. Create some gender-neutral term that’ll work well for both. Now this one’s got some real gametes, walking up and saying that.
  4. A fourth option that I haven’t figured out yet.

I ask not because I’m looking for the Orthodox Answer From Feminism (there isn’t one, and that’s a good thing). Rather, I want a good colloquial way to talk about the women I respect. Also, I like stirring up interesting discussions about language on Mondays.

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One Response

  1. First I thought of “chutzpah,” and then I checked out the thesaurus at dictionary.com to find nerve, spine, backbone, gall, and my personal favorite: braggadocio. (And a few other examples that don’t have the right connotation, in my opinion anyway.)

    I say “balls” all the time, and I always wished there were a different word I could say. Thanks for motivating me to actually put in the effort and find one.

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