Gratuitous word violence

Some weeks ago I was editing a magazine article – a lifestyle feature on young families in the suburbs who were spiffing up their backyards with the help of a local landscaper.

One of the backyards was said to afford a "killer view" of the skyline of the major city nearby.

Hmm, I thought. "A 'killer view'?" After years at the Monitor, I find it's second nature to question gratuitous violence in an article, even rhetorical violence. And after all, this is a lifestyle feature, not a report on the Mahdi Army.

Let's make it a "stunning view," instead, I thought. Well, the cliché police should have nailed me on that one.

My own editorial musings continued along another track, however: "Stunning" has long meant "strikingly beautiful." But what's the metaphor behind it? More violence! Someone takes after someone else with a club and clobbers 'em. Now that's a lovely bit of mental imagery, is it not?

But has the word reached the point where the literal meaning has given way to a figurative one? A quick check of dictionaries suggests that the "clobbering" sense is holding its own.

Here's the first of the "quick definitions" for "stunning" at "Causing or capable of causing bewilderment or shock or insensibility (Example: 'Laid the poor fellow senseless with one stunning blow')."

The second definition is "causing great consternation or astonishment." "Strikingly beautiful or attractive" – a usage some dictionaries tag as "colloquial" – comes only third.

The 1913 Webster's first definition of "stunning" is: "Overpowering consciousness; overpowering the senses; especially, overpowering the sense of hearing; confounding with noise." An earlier antique Webster, the 1828 dictionary, similarly stresses the audio aspect of being "stunned." For example: "To prevent being stunned, cannoneers sometimes fill their ears with wool."

But hold on a bit – what about that "strikingly," modifying "beautiful"? Once I've started down this path, I have to acknowledge that it's another bit of verbal violence.

Sometimes we're "struck" not just by someone's good looks, which can have a literal aspect to it (as when a young man distracted by a pretty girl walks into a telephone pole), but by an idea. "I was struck by the thought that I should call him back right away." Or, "It suddenly hit me that it would be cheaper to move there than to keep commuting."

A visitor from another planet may well wonder what's up with people who get into punching matches with their own thoughts. But it can happen, apparently.

A few weeks ago a man was arrested in South Carolina after getting into an altercation with some shrubbery. Given that shrubs almost never punch first, I have to think the initial affront was all in the man's imagination.

Another expression with a fair bit of force concealed behind a mild-mannered appearance is the phrasal preposition "by dint of," meaning "by means of." I think I first encountered it in one of the "Anne of Green Gables" books in seventh grade or so. But in the dictionary the other day, I ran across "dint," the noun, and found that its literal sense packs quite a punch. It means blow, or stroke, or force of assault. It's related to the "dent" you put in your car. It pops up in idioms like "by dint of sword" – by force of arms, we would say today. Not very Anne of Green Gablesish.

And whatever happened to the "killer view"? On a subsequent rewrite, it became a "million-dollar view." It was a sensible solution. Nonviolent, and reasonably fresh. Even though a million dollars isn't what it used to be – despite a real estate slump.

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