This expression is commonly used, particularly in informal contexts, in spoken language. It is used as a metaphor rather than taking the words at their face value. To find out more, keep reading!
The expression is used to denote that someone is alert and ready to act. It suggests that someone is aware of themselves, their capabilities and is in full control of these.
It has been suggested that the origins of this expression lie in the sporting world. The first recorded use of the expression which has been discovered dates to the year 1864 in William Kingston’s Ernest Bracebridge which reads “Ellis seized the bat with a convulsive clutch… Remembering Ernest’s advice, he kept his eye on the ball, and hit it so fairly that he sent it flying away to a considerable distance.”
The figurative use of the expression came into use much more recently in the year 1989 in Selected Letters by W. C. Williams and J. Laughlin which reads “the novella by Quevedo… [is] right on the ball.”
An example of this expression in usage can be found in the title of a page on the Norfolk Brewhouse website which focuses on the different names of beers. The article is entitled “are you on the ball with names?”