Q&A: “Full ball” vs “full bore”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, there are full measures…

Q: Hi AWC, if you want something to be really loud, what do you say?

A: Please make this very loud?

Q: Well sure, but what if it was a stereo speaker?

A: Please make this speaker very loud?

Q: Right, but what about if you wanted it as loud as it could get?

A: Please make this as loud as it can get?

Q: Hmmm, you’re no fun.


Q: Haha. Okay, well let me just ask you. 

A: Good idea.

Q: My friend and I were listening to music the other day, and they asked me to “turn it up full ball”. But I thought it was “full bore”. None seem to make much sense. Who is correct?

A: Okay, NOW we get what you were asking. Yeah, things like this are often misunderstood as each meaning feels idiomatic.

Q: Idiotic?

A: No, idiomatic. As in, both feel like a nonsense saying – say, like “kettle of fish”.

Q: Oh yeah, WHY do we say that?

A: Look, that’s a whole different kettle of fish. Let’s focus on “full ball” and “full bore” – because at first glance, neither makes any sense.

Q: True. So which is correct?

A: You were right – “full bore” is the correct version. Any ideas as to what the “bore” in question relates to?

Q: People who look up the meanings of phrases?

A: Haha. Very droll, but no. The “bore” isn’t related to sound, it’s all about SPEED. Or more specifically, the speed of an engine.

Q: Ahhhh okay, yes, you can turn your engine up to full bore to go fast!

A: That’s it. “Full bore” is defined as maximum effort and is usually either an adverb – e.g. be going “at full bore” in a car, OR an adjective, where it may have a hyphen, e.g. “a full-bore attempt”.

Q: But why “bore”?

A: It is a measurement used in weapons. The “bore” is the size of the interior diameter of the cylindrical hole through a gun” – dating back to the 1580s. The name “calibre” became synonymous with “bore” in this way, with a “bore” of 0.410 for example being 0.410 of an inch in diameter.

Q: So, a .22 calibre rifle?

A: It is named for its 0.22 bore diameter – or 5.6mm in metric terms.

Q: So a “full bore” gun was the one with the biggest hole?

A: There was no actual gun called that, but yes, the bigger the bore, the bigger the hole in the target! 

Q: So why is “full bore” related to cars and SPEED so much?

A: Good question. In the earlyish days of car engineering, the construction of an internal combustion engine also had cylinders which, if bigger, would also make a bigger bang, so to speak. 

Q: And here I was thinking it was all about faaaamily.

A: Haha, thanks Toretto.

Q: So, you would drive “at full bore”!
A: Yep. The slang appears to have gained popularity in the 1930s in relation to “maximum speed” – from the idea of an unchoked carburetor on an engine.

Q: Unchoked?

A: Allowing maximum airflow and full combustion. 

Q: The biggest bang?

A: Exactly. And therefore faster speeds. So, having an engine at “full bore” fast became a way to say, well, going fast.

Q: And furious!

A: Haha, sure.

Q: So we kind of have two origin stories, right?

A: We do. And they both gave rise to slightly different variations of the phrase. While the car engine revving “full bore” is often an adverb linked to speed, the gun bore is more simply about an adjective for maximum impact or effort. And it’s this latter one that became used for sound as stereos became popular.

Q: “Turn the music up full bore!”

A: Exactly. All the way to 11.

Q: So WHY do so many people think it’s “full ball”?

A: One internet theory relates simply to the volume dial itself – it’s ball-like in appearance and “ball” is certainly a more common word than its sound-alike friend “bore”. Sometimes it’s as easy as that.

Q: So to recap, “full bore” can mean maximum effort, maximum sound, OR it can mean to go really fast – maximum speed.

A: That’s right – it’s a fairly subtle difference but it’s there. And it doesn’t always have to be vehicles. You might say this year is going at “full bore”.

Q: Well this chat has NOT been a full bore – actually very interesting!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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