105—Calling the shots

I was reading the weekly compendium from AWAD, A Word A Day,  and saw a reference to Joe Lurie’s article in the ContraCostaTimes, whose link was broken. So, having tried several different ways to creep up on the article “Our gun-obsessed language reveals much”, googled the man himself and found his article here, under Cultural Detective. He makes several good illustrations, the strongest being the surprised reaction of overseas students that ‘guns are banned from campus’—a telling comment on American culture. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a newsroom mantra—does that apply in the UK too? It is not what leads in the People’s Republic, which would be any inconvenient caring action——putting oneself out for others, such as reacting to a local1 disaster, from which there are many to choose.

I was struck that many of the phrases he, Director Lurie, was pointing to were part of the language long before the founding fathers left Plymouth. I pick out those that we the Brits use to which I think I can point to history. Their common use in our phraseology—in a country where guns are generally out of the sight of Mr & Mrs Public—strikes me as all the more important. As cultural detective, I am a little surprised that Mr Lurie (who I recognise is writing for a particular audience, so I do him disservice in criticising what he has not included, which may well have been edited out) does not point to the significant historical effect. To me, the whole point of such an article is that the history of our culture introduced these phrases and we not only still use them, we’re adding to them.

The phrases that were new to me or which I would not use (and therefore on the surely awful premise that they’re not British English): I’ve use colour rather than quotes

To shoot me an email—ah, that’s why I don’t get them; they miss to make a killer presentation—mind-boggling; leaving them dead, presumably getting my biggest bang for the buck—surely a US gun-sellers comment; if not, a comment on the lewd underside of Victorian society.

silver bullet solutions—a vampirophilic [Buffy, Bram Stoker, etc] after-effect? Or is that werewolves?

Shoot for the moon—from the Kennedy days, I’d guess. Shooting the moon was something I recognise as loose shooting (what we see on news items from the Arab world) that I would call negligent discharge, an ND.

Double-barrelled action—open to many interpretations, which I will resist. I don’t recognise any sensible meaning.

Sure as shooting—since most folk are lousy shots, this is pretty uncertain. Pistols are notorious for being difficult to use over any distance and far too many people can’t hit the target at 25 metres. With a rifle at that range even this bad shot expects to hit the 5cm circle of choice. Not that one chooses to shoot people, nor that one feels the need for ownership of a weapon; I have no such desire.

There are phrases such as I used for the title, which Mr Lurie didn’t use, perhaps because they aren’t extant in his bit of the world (in any sense you care to pick, from his country to his little part of it). I expect to add to such a list in time. Calling the shots is what a spotter does, paired to a sniper or to a set of artillery, no doubt a good deal more sophisticated than “left a bit”...


For those whose history is even vaguer than mine,

The Romans left Britain around 400 (disputed, but 409 and 410 are popular choices, though the dictionary entries below say 423).

The Chinese were using gunpowder-based artillery in the Song dynasty, 1132 CE.

Europeans used gunpowder in the 15th century (Joan of Arc knew of it and faced it often). Big changes came in the 1420s with improved quality control of the powder. Rifling was attempted on small arms.

William Caxton first worked a printing press in the late 1450s, printing mainly in English. The founding fathers left Plymouth in 1620

Cromwell was running around Ireland brutally playing soldiers 1649-53.

The American War of independence was 1775-83.

Rifles were introduced (the Baker rifle) in the Napoleonic wars (read any of the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell), 1803-1815.

1846 was the start of the use of guncotton (nitrocellulose), though it took time to develop weapons that were safe (at the firing end). This took over from black powder or gunpowder. I found a reference to Armstrong’s rifled breach-loading gun, 1858, followed by Royal Commission forts, 1859, which [showed that if the Navy was lured away so as not to actually defend these shores then we were stuffed, so this] then resulted in a load of fort-building  which then proved a wasted effort as the threat was removed by the Franco-Prussian war, 1870-71. The building [even] continued into the 1880s and became called Palmerston’s Follies. Those in Plymouth will recognise the works and the labels; naming them on here (and wider on the internet) is likely a no-no.


Rifling really worked when the metallurgy caught up in the 1850s. Indirect fire6 may have begun in the 16th century and was a common practice in Paltsig (1759), but leapt forwards among the Germans in 1870 and the Russians 1890.  Lanyard firing of cannon came with Napoleon in 1789. At Waterloo [1815], there was artillery firing guided by a remote observer (so he could see what was going on but the gunners could not). Rifles improved immensely in the American Civil War, 1861-5; most of the improvement was technical—the metallurgy, the product control, the details of engineering product.




To more archaic terms to do with guns. Guns are, more by definition than use, not rifled and so inherently less accurate. Gun generally means bigger than a rifle, possibly not hand-held, (one definition is that a gun needs a crew to operate it) and artillery guns have been with us a long time—Cromwell even. The Romans used artillery of sorts. Thus phrases like jumping the gun date to those times when Britain was still wearing red coats (rather than blue paint), as do references to charging, cartridges. Parting shot follows from Parthian shot -maybe. It is debated, but the Parthians were famous for firing when apparently in retreat, so either coincidence or overlapping meanings; it wouldn’t surprise me to find eventually that they are one and the same, with a folk-tale casting doubt upon that. That said, it could be a classics scholar’s long-lived pun. In turn, that makes the phrase ‘parting shot’ pre-Christian. the parting blow phrase is first found in print before printing started. Jump the gun is to do with false starts in races, though I agree it ought to have a naval history as some sort of opposite to keel-hauling2. This, then from sport, especially that with money incentives attached.

Keeping your powder dry must date to a time before even cartridges, of the War of Independence and earlier. Found a reference to Cromwell using the phrase, “Trust in God and keep your powder dry”3. Gun shy referred to horses before people. At the fun fair, the shy is a throwing or shooting zone, so ‘gun shy’ can be quite the opposite of being shy of guns. A gun shy horse is disturbed and restive at the sound of gunfire. Merriam Webster4 says the 1st printed use was 1884.


Enter http://www.etymonline.com5 which gives a delightful selection of words to explore: I entered ‘gun’ for the first group and ‘shoot’ for the second:

gun (n.)

mid-14c., gunne "an engine of war that throws rocks, arrows or other missiles," probably a shortening of woman's name Gunilda, found in Middle English gonnilde "cannon" and in an Anglo-Latin reference to a specific gun from a 1330 munitions inventory of Windsor Castle ("...una magna balista de cornu quae Domina Gunilda ..."), from Old Norse Gunnhildr, woman's name, from gunnr + hildr, both meaning "war, battle." First element from PIE *gwhen- "to strike, kill" (see bane); for second, cf. Hilda.

The identification of women with powerful weapons is common historically (cf. Big Bertha, Brown Bess, Mons Meg, etc.); meaning shifted with technology, from cannons to firearms as they developed 15c. Great guns (cannon, etc.) distinguished from small guns (such as muskets) from c.1400. [Gun was] Applied to pistols and revolvers after 1744. Meaning "thief, rascal" is from 1858. Son of a gun is originally nautical. To jump the gun (1912, American English) is from track and field. Guns "a woman's breasts" (especially if prominent) attested by 2006.

gun (v.) "to shoot with a gun," 1620s, from gun (n.); the sense of "to accelerate an engine" is from 1930, from earlier phrase to give (something) the gun. Related: Gunned; gunning.

gun moll 1908, "female criminal," second element from nickname of Mary, used of disreputable females since early 1600s; first element from slang gonif "thief" (1885), from Yiddish, from Hebrew gannabh "thief."

gun-metal commonly an alloy of copper and zinc; used attributively of a dull blue-gray color since 1905.

gun-shy (adj.) 1884, originally of sporting dogs, from gun (n.) + shy (adj.).

gunboat 1793, from gun + boat. Gunboat diplomacy is from 1916, originally with reference to Western policies in China.

gunman (n.) 1620s, from gun (n.) + man (n.). In early American English use, especially of Indian warriors.

gunnel (n.) small marine fish, 1680s, of unknown origin; perhaps from Cornish.

gunner (n.) mid-14c., gonner "one who works a cannon," agent noun from gun.

gunnery (n.) c.1600, from gun + -ery.

gunpowder (n.) early 15c., from gun (n.) + powder (n.). The Gunpowder Plot was the conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament on Nov. 5, 1605, while the King, Lords and Commons were assembled there.

gunshot (n.) early 15c., "shot fired from a gun," from gun (n.) + shot (n.). Meaning "range of a gun or cannon" is from 1530s.

gunsmith (n.) 1580s, from gun (n.) + smith.

Gunther also Gunter, masc. proper name, Old High German Gundhard, literally "bold in war," from gund "war" (see gun) + hart "hard, strong, bold" (see hard).

gunwale (n.) mid-15c., gonne walle, from gun (n.) + wale "plank" (see wale). Originally a platform on the deck of a ship to support the mounted guns. Often mis-spelled gunnel (above). Filled to the gunnels, for example, would be better as ‘full to the rowlocks (rollocks)

handgun (n.) 1680s, from hand (n.) + gun (n.).

outgun (v.) 1690s, from out (adv.) + gun. Related: Outgunned; outgunning.

shotgun (n.) 1828, American English, from shot (n.) in the sense of "lead in small pellets" (1770) + gun (n.). As distinguished from a rifle, which fires bullets. Shotgun wedding first attested 1903, American English.



shoot (v.) Old English sceotan "to shoot" (class II strong verb; past tense sceat, pp. scoten), from Proto-Germanic *skeutanan (cf. Old Saxon skiotan, Old Norse skjota, Old Frisian skiata, Dutch schieten, German schießen), from PIE root *skeud- "to shoot, to chase, to throw, to project" (cf. Sanskrit skundate "hastens, makes haste," Old Church Slavonic iskydati "to throw out," Lithuanian skudrus "quick, nimble").

Meanings "send forth swiftly" and "wound with missiles" were in Old English. In reference to pool playing, from 1926. Meaning "to inject by means of a hypodermic needle" is attested from 1914. Meaning "photograph" (especially a movie) is from 1890. As an interjection, an arbitrary euphemistic alteration of shit, it is recorded from 1934. Shooting star first recorded 1590s. Shoot the breeze "chat" first recorded 1941. Shoot to kill first attested 1867. Shoot-out (n.) is from 1953.

skeet (n.) form of trapshooting, 1926, a name chosen as "a very old form of our present word 'shoot.' " Perhaps Old Norse skotja "to shoot" (see shoot) was intended.

undershoot (v.) 1660s, "to shoot too low," from under + shoot (v.). In reference to aircraft or pilots, recorded from 1918. Undershot as a type of water wheel is recorded from c.1600.

overshoot (v.) mid-14c., "to shoot, run, or pass beyond (a point or limit)," over- + shoot (v.). Related: Overshot; overshooting.

shot (n.) Old English scot, sceot "an act of shooting, that which is discharged in shooting," from Proto-Germanic *skutan (cf. Old Norse skutr, Old Frisian skete, Middle Dutch scote, German Schuß "a shot"), related to sceotan "to shoot" (see shoot).

Meaning "discharge of a bow, missile," is from Old English gesceot; extended to other projectiles in Middle English, and to sports (hockey, basketball, etc.) 1868. Another original meaning, "payment," is preserved in scot-free. Meaning "drink of straight liquor" first attested 1670s. Meaning "try, attempt" is from 1756; adjectival sense of "exhausted" is from 1930. Sense of "hypodermic injection" first attested 1904; figurative phrase shot in the arm "stimulant" first recorded 1922. Meaning "remark meant to wound" is recorded from 1841; hence cheap shot (1973). To call the shots is first attested 1967; shot in the dark is from 1895. Scot-free seen spelled wrongly several times recently; a reference to England stealing Scottish land, or perhaps describing an action in the Border lands by raiding Scots. No, originally a scot meant ‘royal tax’, so scot-free meant exempt from such tax. The Scots wer taxed, but their name comes from the Scotti, who invaded Scotland from Ireland when the Romans left in 423AD

skite (n.) "contemptible person," 1790, earlier "sudden stroke or blow" (1785), perhaps from Old Norse skyt-, from skjota "to shoot."

troubleshooter (n.) also trouble-shooter, 1898, originally one who works on telegraph or telephone lines. From trouble (n.) + shoot (v.). A surprise, then.

snipe (v.) "shoot from a hidden place," 1773 (among British soldiers in India), in reference to hunting snipe as game, from snipe (n.). Related: Sniped; sniping. For those that didn’t know, a snipe is an edible bird, hence a game bird.

gun (v.) "to shoot with a gun," 1620s, from gun (n.); the sense of "to accelerate an engine" is from 1930, from earlier phrase to give (something) the gun. Related: Gunned; gunning.

kneecap (n.) 1650s, "a covering or protection for the knee," from knee (n.) + cap (n.). Meaning "bone in front of the knee joint" is from 1869; the verb in the underworld sense of "to shoot (someone) in the knee" as punishment is attested by 1975. Related: Kneecapped. As late as ’75? From Ireland, one supposes; I’d have thought it an older expression and an older practice.

fusillade (n.) "simultaneous discharge of firearms," 1801, from French fusillade, from fusiller "to shoot," from fusil "musket" (see fusilier). As a verb from 1816.

moon (n.) Old English mona, from Proto-Germanic *menon- (cf. Old Saxon and Old High German mano, Old Frisian mona, Old Norse mani, Danish maane, Dutch maan, German Mond, Gothic mena "moon"), from PIE *me(n)ses- "moon, month" (cf. Sanskrit masah "moon, month;" Avestan ma, Persian mah, Armenian mis "month;" Greek mene "moon," men "month;" Latin mensis "month;" Old Church Slavonic meseci, Lithuanian menesis "moon, month;" Old Irish mi, Welsh mis, Breton miz "month"), probably from root *me- "to measure," in reference to the moon's phases as the measure of time. A masculine noun in Old English. In Greek, Italic, Celtic, Armenian the cognate words now mean only "month." Greek selene (Lesbian selanna) is from selas "light, brightness (of heavenly bodies)."

[The word moon was] Extended 1665 to satellites of other planets. To shoot the moon "leave without paying rent" is British slang from c.1823; card-playing sense perhaps influenced by gambler's shoot the works (1922) "go for broke" in shooting dice. The moon race and the U.S. space program of the 1960s inspired a number of coinages, including, from those skeptical of the benefits to be gained, moondoggle (cf. boondoggle). The man in the moon is mentioned since early 14c.; he carries a bundle of thorn-twigs and is accompanied by a dog. Some Japanese, however, see a rice-cake-making rabbit in the moon.

strafe (v.) 1915, "punish, attack," picked up by British soldiers from German strafen "to punish" (from Proto-Germanic *stræf-), in slogan Gott strafe England "May God punish England," current in Germany c.1914-16 at the start of World War I. The word used for many kinds of attack at first; meaning "shoot up ground positions from low-flying aircraft" emerged as the main sense 1942.

rove (v.) "to wander with no fixed destination," 1530s, possibly a Midlands dialectal variant of northern English and Scottish rave "to wander, stray," from Middle English raven, probably from Old Norse rafa "to wander, rove." Influenced by rover. Earliest sense was "to shoot arrows at a mark selected at pleasure or at random" (late 15c.). Related: Roved; roving.


You might like these descriptions of shooters, human and artificial:


franc-tireur (n.) "sharpshooter of the irregular infantry," 1808, French, literally "free-shooter," from franc "free" (see frank) + tireur "shooter," from tirer "to draw, shoot" (see tirade). A term from the French Revolution.

Taser (n.) 1972, formed from the initials of Tom Swift's electric rifle, a fictitious weapon. A powerful word that threatens to escape the cage of its copyright, despite the strenuous efforts of the owners, who are within their rights to fight to hold it. They also insist, via their attorneys, that it be written all in capitals [TASER]. A key [to] the executive washroom is not a license to dictate language, at least not in English. It seems to have spawned a verb, taze. Lovely: “a key to the executive washroom is not a license to dictate language”

musket (n.) "firearm for infantry" (later replaced by the rifle), 1580s, from Middle French mousquette, also the name of a kind of sparrow-hawk, diminutive of mosca "a fly," from Latin musca (see midge). The hawk so called either for its size or because it looks speckled when in flight. Early firearms often were given names of beasts (cf. dragoon), and the equivalent word in Italian was used to mean "an arrow for a crossbow." The French word was borrowed earlier into English (early 15c.) in its literal sense of "sparrow-hawk."

carbine (n.) short rifle, 1580s, from French carabine (Middle French carabin), used of light horsemen and also of the weapon they carried, of uncertain origin, perhaps from Medieval Latin Calabrinus "Calabrian" (i.e., "rifle made in Calabria"). A less-likely theory (Gamillscheg, etc.) connects it to Old French escarrabin "corpse-bearer during the plague," literally (probably) "carrion beetle," said to have been an epithet for archers from Flanders.

Chassepot (n.) "bolt-action breechloading rifle used by French forces in the Franco-Prussian War," 1870, named for French inventor Antonine-Alphonse Chassepot (1833-1905). Do you think A-A Chassepot might have known Thomas Crapper?


Joe Lurie, whose article set me off on this word-chase is Executive Director Emeritus at University of California Berkeley's International House; this sounds like a nice job if he is paid to write stuff like that. Can I have a go, please? He’s moving on this year...



DJS 20130210  

AQI under 100 !! The hourly mean for Beijing since 00:00 for the day listed here:

154, 446, 259, 235, 158, 69, 55 [06:00], 32, 55, 62 ,74, 62. 52 [12:00], 62, 45, 42

Shanghai has dropped too, being 549 at 01:00 and settling at around 175 (unhealthy) for the rest of the day.

Guangzhou has had a yellow day (just under the 100) with 02:00 to 04:00 at 140-150 and it went back over the 100 at lunch for three hours.

Chengdu is having a red day, all over 150 with a two-hour peak (it must be the CNY fireworks) after midnight close to 500


The picture is mine, of Cadet Sergeant Joe, 20050711 at, I think, the Army Camp at which we won the ‘stick’. We both checked the weapon was empty; I’ll confirm any guesses what it is; the yellow thing is a flash suppressor that helps officer-types know which cadet has the bigger weapon, sometimes called the ‘gun’. Ah, fun days: sunshine and sweat. I hope including the photo isn’t breaking any rules. I think you’ll agree Joe looks very professional. I’ve suppressed his surname just in case he’s still wearing uniform. I even turned this photo into a jigsaw.




1 By local I mean the reaction was local, thought the disaster will be often remote to the newsroom. Floods, landslides, earthquakes, et cetera; China is a big country, not all of which is quite as crowded as you might think.

2 CANOE = the Committee for Ascribing Naval Origins to Everything

3 As ever, these days there is more doubt cast than confirmation made, but it could be an attributed quote from a dramatic poem by William Blacker, 1834. I am amused by the explanation: Be prepared and save your resources until they are needed. I see the maxim as meaning look to preserve your resources in a fit state. You have stock, but do you maintain it (or them) or let it rot / rust / decay from neglect?

4 Know what? I’ve read that as Miriam Webster for decades, imagining a kindly old lady with pince-nez and a world of lovingly kept books. I read today that the cantankerous old goats live longer than the kind old ladies. I note that the online dictionaries are uniformly poor; my desktop’s dictionary is no worse, but what I am missing is the etymology.


5 Enter http://www.etymonline.com   these words—or their meanings—are too delicious to ignore. Brown from them, black from me. I didn’t know gunsel or thallus; several I’ve included in the hope that you enjoy a new word. Examples: virgule for comma, gunk being soap originally, thallium from tits spectrum and the origin of gung-ho.

gunsel (n.)      1914, American English, from hobo slang, "a catamite;" specifically "a young male kept as a sexual companion, especially by an older tramp," from Yiddish genzel, from German Gänslein "gosling, young goose." The secondary, non-sexual meaning "young hoodlum" seems to be entirely traceable to Dashiell Hammett, who sneaked it into "The Maltese Falcon" (1929) while warring with his editor over the book's racy language.

"Another thing," Spade repeated, glaring at the boy: "Keep that gunsel away from me while you're making up your mind. I'll kill him."

The context implies some connection with gun and a sense of "gunman," and evidently the editor bought it. The word was retained in the script of the 1941 movie made from the book, so evidently the Motion Picture Production Code censors didn't know it either.

The relationship between Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) and his young hit-man companion, Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr.), is made fairly clear in the movie, but the overt mention of sexual perversion would have been deleted if the censors hadn't made the same mistaken assumption as Hammett's editor. [Hugh Rawson, "Wicked Words," 1989, p.184]

gunny   1711, Anglo-Indian goney "coarse fabric," from Hindi goni, from Sanskrit goni "sack." Gunny sack attested by 1862.  Note also use of Gunny for Gunnery Sergeant in US Marine; coarse fabric, indeed; famously so. A gunny sack is surely now a senior sergeant’s sea bag. The badge has three chevrons above and two ‘rockers’ below the crossed guns badge; not a four-striper, that’s a Navy Captain.

gung ho

also gung-ho, gungho, 1942, slang motto of Carlson's Raiders (2nd Marine Raider Battalion, under Lt. Col. Evans Carlson, 1896-1947), U.S. guerrilla unit operating in the Pacific in World War II, from Chinese kung ho "work together, cooperate." Widely adopted in American English c.1959.

Borrowing an idea from China, Carlson frequently has what he calls 'kung-hou' meetings .... Problems are threshed out and orders explained. ["New York Times Magazine," Nov. 8, 1942]

gong1 he2 perhaps in modern chinese

gunk (n.)

1949, "viscous substance," American English, apparently from Gunk, trademark for a thick liquid soap patented 1932 by A.F. Curran Co. of Malden, Mass.

shotten (adj.) "having shot its spawn," and accordingly of inferior value, mid-15c., from pp. of shoot (v.). Originally of fish; applied to persons, with sense of "exhausted by sickness," from 1590s.

skit (n.) 1570s, "a vain, frivolous, or wanton girl" (originally Scottish, now archaic), related to verb meaning "to shy or be skittish," perhaps from Old Norse skjuta "to shoot" (see skittish). Sense shifted to "a satirical remark or reflection" (1727), then "a piece of light satire or caricature" (1820).

scud (v.) "to move quickly," 1530s, perhaps a variant of Middle English scut "rabbit, rabbit's tail," in reference to its movements, perhaps from Old Norse skjota "to throw, shoot" (cf. Norwegian skudda "to shove, push"), but there are phonetic difficulties. Perhaps rather from a North Sea Germanic source akin to Middle Low German, Middle Dutch schudden "to shake." The type of ballistic missile is the NATO reporting name for a type of Soviet missile introduced in the 1960s.

scion (n.) c.1300, "a shoot or twig," from Old French sion, cion (Modern French scion, Picard chion), of uncertain origin. Perhaps from Frankish *kid-, from Proto-Germanic *kidon-, from PIE *geie- "to sprout, split, open." Figurative use is attested from 1580s; meaning "an heir, a descendant" is from 1814, from the "family tree" image. A word well-known to all scions of the family Scoins.

stochastic (adj.) 1660s, "pertaining to conjecture," from Greek stokhastikos "able to guess, conjecturing," from stokhazesthai "guess," from stokhos "a guess, aim, target, mark," literally "pointed stick set up for archers to shoot at" (see sting). The sense of "randomly determined" is first recorded 1934, from German stochastik. Hence stochastic process, well-known to the widely-read and the mathematician; these are used in statistics to emulate processes. See also the dice man (I’ll let you google that yourself, having written about it before and it being one of those life-changing books).

thallus (n.) Latin, from Greek thallos "green shoot, twig," related to thalia "abundance," thalos "scion, child," ultimately from PIE root *dhal- "to bloom" (cf. Old Irish duilesc, a type of algae).

blastema (n.) 1849, Modern Latin, from Greek blastema "offspring, offshoot," from stem of blastanein "to shoot forth," from blastos "sprout, germ," of unknown origin. Related: Blastemal.

thallium (n.) rare metallic element, 1861, Modern Latin, from Greek thallos "young shoot, green branch" (see thallus) + element name ending -ium. So called by its discoverer, Sir William Crookes (1832-1919), from the green line in its spectrum by which he detected it.

virgule (n.) thin sloping line, used as a comma in medieval MSS, 1837, from French virgule, from Latin virgula "punctuation mark," literally "little twig," diminutive of virga "shoot, rod, stick." The word had been borrowed in its Latin form in 1728.



Language Under the Gun

By Joe Lurie

When I was a Peace Corps high school teacher in Kenya, my students’ stunned reaction to the assassination of Martin Luther King triggered my first consciousness about guns in America. There I was in a village classroom, trying to explain to my students and myself how such a killing could occur in a “civilized” country.

Reflecting on the“cross-hair,” “target,” and “reload” rhetoric of recent weeks in the US, I’m reminded that our language is shot through with gun metaphors and associations. And perhaps it was my Peace Corps experience that helped me understand that language usage is often shaped by a culture’s history and preoccupations.

Now, more than forty years later, in the wake of Columbine High School, Virginia Tech and recently a Safeway in Tucson, I’ve learned that guns are in at least half of all American homes and that each year, about 250,000 Americans are either injured or killed by gun fire. And according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Violence, in one year there were 17 murders in Finland, 35 in Australia, 39 in England and Wales, 60 in Spain, 194 in Germany, 200 in Canada and 9,484 in the United States.

As I flipped through tv channels, watching left and right wing politicians and pundits battling in a “cross-fire” of blame, each side looking for a “smoking gun” to explain or cast blame for the Tucson tragedy, I became increasingly aware of how we US Americans unconsciously use gun language to express ourselves, even during the most innocent interactions.

In conversation, we often value the “straight shooter,” yet are wary of those who “shoot their mouths off,” those who “shoot from the hip” or glibly end an argument with a “parting shot.” We caution our friends and colleagues to avoid “shooting themselves in the foot,” and counsel them not to “shoot the messenger."

At home, without suspecting what drives our language, we are “blown away” by adorable photos of loved ones; and at the movies, many of us are seeking “double barreled action.”

I’m reminded of how often I’ve asked friends to “shoot me” an email, or encouraged job seekers to give an interview their “best shot” and to “stick to their guns” if principles are at stake during salary discussions.

In other kinds of sensitive business negotiations, I’ve advised patience, urging colleagues to avoid “jumping the gun.” When the moment is right for getting the biggest “bang for the buck,” I’ve agreed to bring the “big guns” to the table. We look for “silver bullet” solutions, hoping for “bulletproof” results. And when success is in sight, we say: “Keep at it — you’re going great guns!”

We encourage entrepreneurial risk taking, despite suspecting the project doesn’t have a “shot in hell.” Just “fire away” when you make that “killer” presentation, and if your idea is “shot down,” don’t be “gun shy.” Just “bite the bullet” and try again. Don’t be afraid to “shoot for the moon,” even if it looks like a “shot in the dark.”

Having worked as a university executive with students from more than 80 countries, I’ve noticed students from abroad are particularly struck by the violent language in our songs and video games, and they see it bleeding into our political discourse. Many have asked me in utter amazement why it is even necessary to state that guns and ammunition are banned from university residence halls.

I’ve heard staff and students alike stressed by an approaching deadline, instinctively describing themselves as being “under the gun.” Sometimes my colleagues have described emotional co-workers as “loose cannons” or having “hair trigger” personalities. And from time to time, when a student has gone off ‘half cocked,” psychologists have advised employees to “keep their powders dry.”

In the same way that the US is flooded with millions of guns (there are 90 guns per one hundred Americans), so our newscasts — “sure as shootin’ ” — are exploding almost nightly with murder stories, reflecting the newsroom mantra: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

When the local story becomes a national tragedy, there is new ammunition for both gun control supporters and those who are opposed to fire arm bans in such places as state houses, the halls of Congress, or even the neighborhood bar!

The world of guns has had our rhetoric in its sights for a very long time. And our wounded language — now more than ever with a gun to its head — is telling us that our culture is on the firing line.


6   Indirect fire: aiming at a target you possibly can’t see, correcting the aim on discovering where the munition landed. I reckon that was done with ballistae too, so I’d ask when direct fire began, instead.


© David Scoins 2017