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ball and chain

noun
  1. a heavy iron ball fastened by a chain to a prisoner's leg.
  2. a burdensome restraint: The steady accumulation of small debts was a ball and chain to his progress.
  3. Facetious Slang: Often Offensive. a person's spouse or romantic partner, especially a female.
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Origin of ball and chain

An Americanism dating back to 1825–35

Usage note

In the meaning “romantic partner,” this term is consciously used for humorous or playful effect. But it is often perceived as insulting, implying that the partner is a burden or restriction on the other partner.
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

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British Dictionary definitions for ball-and-chain

ball and chain

noun
  1. (formerly) a heavy iron ball attached to a chain and fastened to a prisoner
  2. a heavy restraint
  3. slang a wife
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Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for ball-and-chain

ball and chain

n.

a type of prisoner's restraint, 1818; as "one's wife," 1920.

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Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

Idioms and Phrases with ball-and-chain

ball and chain

A burden and restraint, as in Karen regarded her job as a ball and chain, but she needed the money. The term, dating from the early 1800s, alludes to chaining a heavy iron ball to a prisoner's leg. Later it was transferred to other kinds of restraining burden.

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The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.