Learn English – the difference between “Have got sb by the balls” and “Sb being over a barrel” in describing somebody in predicament


I found two intriguing idioms in a pair in the following sentence of Jeffery Archer’s “The Forth Estate” (page 592) that I came to the last part at length.
A media mogul, Dick Armstrong (seemingly modeling Donald Trump) is approached by Earl Withers, the lawyers of Chicago based newspaper that is on the brink of financial crisis for a salvaging acquisition:

“And is it true that it’s in debt for $200 million?” said Armstrong.

“$207 million, to be precise,” said Withers.

“And losing over a million a week?” “Around one million three hundred
thousand.” “And the unions have got you by the balls.”

In Chicago, Mr. Armstrong, we would describe it as "over a barrel". But
that is precisely why my clients felt we should approach you – – -.”

I’m curious to know why the Chicago lawyer deliberately rephrased Armstrong’s “got by the balls” remark with the phrase, “over a barrel.”

Are “Have got sb by the balls” and “Sb being over a barrel” exact synonyms that are interchangeable as Withers rephrased? To me, they seem to have different shades of meaning and occasions of use aside from decency of the wording.

Best Answer

You are correct in that the lawyer is using a higher register, while the mogul is using a lower register. The author may be using the difference in register (“decency in wording,” as you put it) to highlight the difference between the characters.

The Free Dictionary defines over a barrel as

Fig. out of one's control; in a dilemma.

It defines have by the balls as

Extremely informal. to have someone in a situation where you have complete power over them

The two phrases have in common that one party is in an awkward position and may be forced to act in a way contrary to his best interest. They also have in common that one party is out of control.

“Have over a barrel” refers to the awkward position of one party.

“Have by the balls” refers to the power the second party has over the first party.

In substituting the former for the latter, the lawyer is not only softening the phrase and raising the register, but subtly shifting the focus of the mogul’s predicament. It is shifting from the mogul’s being under another's thrall to merely being in a vulnerable state.