Gun Metaphors Deeply Embedded In English Language

Gun-oriented language is so pervasive in American English that even Vice President Joe Biden, in a recent press conference about curbing gun violence, discussed "shooting" for a given deadline and the lack of a "silver bullet." Melissa Block speaks with Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries for Oxford University Press, about how American English came to be peppered with so many of the terms.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In January, when Vice President Biden concluded a week of meetings at the White House over how to curb gun violence, listen to the words he chose to describe the complexity.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: We know that it is - there is no silver bullet.

BLOCK: And as for when he'd make his proposal?

BIDEN: I'm shooting for Tuesday. I hope I get it done by then.

BLOCK: No silver bullet. Shooting for Tuesday. Just two examples of how pervasive gun language is in our everyday speech. Think about it: We bite the bullet, sweat bullets, ride shotgun, stick to our guns, jump the gun, go ballistic, and shoot from the hip. If she's a straight-shooter, he's a real pistol. Oh, he's a little gun shy. What a hot shot. Son of a gun.

Well, to help decode some of this gun speak, I'm joined by Katherine Connor Martin. She's head of U.S. dictionaries for Oxford University Press. Welcome to the program.

KATHERINE CONNOR MARTIN: Thanks for having me, Melissa.

BLOCK: And, Katherine, you've been looking into when some of these phrases came into the lexicon. Why don't we start with silver bullet, what have you learned about that?

MARTIN: There are references to silver bullets being used to kill mythological creatures, back to the 17th century. The major supernatural creature who was killed with a silver bullet was a werewolf. But the idea of using a silver bullet to solve a problem, other than a mythological creature, comes from the 20th century onwards.

BLOCK: There are a lot of terms that spinoff the act of shooting: parting shot, long shot, a scattershot approach, give it your best shot. What about the phrase: Don't shoot the messenger?

MARTIN: Don't shoot the messenger is really interesting because the sentiment, the idea that someone who is bringing bad news is likely to be punished or disliked as a result, goes back to time immemorial. Sophocles used it in "Antigone" - no man loves the messenger of ill. However, we don't see this specific phrase, don't shoot or kill the messenger, until again in the mid-20th century.

BLOCK: When you sit back and think broadly about the kinds of gun metaphors that are used, the types of ways that this language is used in English, what do you see? What's the pattern?

MARTIN: Well, conflict is a constant in the human experience, whether it's on the battlefield or in the boardroom. And so we see a lot of cases in which gunfire is likened to verbal conflict or aggression. So, someone comes under fire, people are caught in the crossfire, a person shoots their mouth off. But there are other contexts as well. Often the firing of a gun seems to be likened to making a decision - shoot from the hip, pull the trigger, quick on the trigger.

You also see examples where the idea of force is expressed with both barrels or with guns blazing and there are phrases relating to significance. Important people are big guns, insignificant and trivial things are described as small bore. And as we saw with Joe Biden, there's this common use with the notion of aiming and targeting, shooting for something.

BLOCK: Setting your sights on something.

MARTIN: Setting your sights on something, yes, having something in your crosshairs.

BLOCK: You do wonder whether the literal meaning becomes devalued in a way, neutered. And I find I'm often removing from copy the phrase come under fire because I'm sort of like, that should be reserved for people who actually do come under literal fire.

MARTIN: That's absolutely a phenomenon that exists, not just in this gun-related language but with all metaphorical language, that over time, an expression becomes so thoroughly ensconced in our language that it's totally disconnected from the original context. And, in fact, we can even lose track of what that original context was. A perfect example of this is the phrase, a flash in the pan.

BLOCK: And what's the derivation of that? Where does that come from?

MARTIN: Well, it refers to a rudimentary gun technology back in the days when guns were fired with loose gun powder. And so, the flash in the pan is the explosion of gun power in the pan and when it doesn't ignite the charge in the actual barrel, I.E. the gun doesn't actually go off, it's just a flash in the pan. We can use that now without any knowledge at all of the gun that it was related to.

And, in fact, I think probably a lot of people are picturing a frying pan on the stove.

BLOCK: Sure.

MARTIN: Rather than any gun at all.

BLOCK: Katherine Connor Martin is head of U.S. dictionaries for the Oxford University Press. Katherine, thank you so much.

MARTIN: My pleasure. Thanks.

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