Verbal Energy

Shooting our mouths off, as well as our guns

After yet another mass shooting, the Monitor's language columnist considers the role of gun metaphors in ordinary conversation.

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Why do Americans keep shooting their mouths off?

A few weeks after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last December, I bookmarked a commentary by an educational consultant named Joe Lurie. His point was to question all the gun metaphors that creep into daily conversation in American English.

"Having worked as a university executive with students from more than 80 countries," Mr. Lurie wrote, "I've noticed that students from abroad are struck by the violent language in our songs and films, and they hear it bleeding into our political discourse."

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The piece, which I found on the website of the Contra Costa Times, in California, was illustrated with an Associated Press photo taken after Christmas in a gun shop in Casper, Wyo. The shop had been all but stripped of merchandise by customers eager for military-style guns. The caption indicated that the store, like many nationwide, had sold out of firearms after the Sandy Hook shootings raised concerns over the possibility of new antigun legislation.

This concern, we now know, was misplaced. President Obama's proposed bill to tighten gun laws failed in Congress in April, despite overwhelming public support.

I kept my note-to-self about Lurie's commentary on the chance it might regain relevance.

And so, alas, it has. A young gunman identified as John Zawahri went on a shooting rampage June 7 in Santa Monica, Calif., before being killed by the police on the campus of Santa Monica College.

It was not quite so horrific as the tragedy in Newtown, but comparisons are odious, and hearts in California are no less broken than were those in Connecticut.

And meanwhile, the gun metaphors Lurie mentioned are alive and well: Americans continue to admire a "straight shooter," long after the phrase made it into our speech as an adaptation from cowboy movies.

We've had "Crossfire" as the name of a political talk show – vanished from CNN for several years now but rumored to be on its way back. Before that, there was William F. Buckley's long-running "Firing Line" – although that show was rather more genteel than its name suggested, certainly by comparison with contemporary standards.

When we're under deadline pressure, we speak of ourselves as "under the gun."

We gather "ammunition" for our arguments – including those in favor of more gun control. We speak of someone "shooting himself in the foot" when he does something to defeat his own purpose.

I have to plead guilty myself. I'll promise to "shoot for" a particular deadline when I'm trying to signal my intent but hint at my lack of certainty that I'll make it.

Of course, our metaphors don't always come from where we think they do. The "bullet points" of our memos have nothing to do with guns. Etymologically, they're just "little balls." "Troubleshooters" originally worked on telegraph or telephone lines, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

It may be just journalese to write, "The program is aimed at new mothers," rather than "The program is intended to help new mothers." But our choice of metaphor does betray something about our thinking. And it's worth paying attention to the imagery behind our casual turns of phrase.

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