Friday, 23 August 2013

New images from old guns

A few weeks ago I mentioned (here) a possible future post about the way obsolete arms technology is used to form  metaphors that persist long after the arms technology is relegated to museums; it's not just arms-related vocabulary of course. Someone who has never seen a stair-rod or heard a telephone bell may give someone a bell and report that it's coming down in stair-rods. But arms-related (and armed-conflict-related) vocabulary is a particularly fruitful source of metaphor.

I've compiled a list of expressions/collocations/sayings of one kind or another, even a name, that refer to obsolete arms technology.  I'm sure the list, like all such lists, will grow:

  • Broadside – all the cannon on one side of a fighting ship firing at once.
  • Give no quarter – like take no prisoners (see below), but the expression 'give quarter' is itself archaic. Modern soldiers don't talk about 'giving quarter'.
  • Flash in the pan – in a flint-lock, the trigger sparked off an explosion in a pan which itself set off the main explosion. Sometimes there was a flash in the pan, but the main charge was unaffected.
  • Fletcher – the name of a medieval arms dealer (the person who added the feathers to arrows)
  • Laden to the gunwales – see my recent post
  • Lock stock and barrel – parts of an old gun
  • Loose cannon – a danger in an operational gun-deck, when a cannon's recoil broke its tether
  • On a short fuse – there are still fuses, but the expression (meaning short-tempered) dates from a time when many explosions were controlled by the length of a fuse
  • Ordnance Survey maps – The original Ordnance Survey was carried out to support the use of ordnance in Scotland after the Jacobite Rebellion. See more here
  • Ramrod – either ramrod-straight or straight/stiff as a ramrod. The ramrod was used in packing the charge in a muzzle-loading firearm
  • Sally – walled towns often had a sally port, a small gate that allowed besieged forces to launch an informal attack
  • Salvo – a slightly more modern form of broadside
  • Shield – there are still shields in modern warfare, but they are generally not free-standing articles (except in the case of police controlling hostile crowds)
  • Shoot from the hip – people can still do this, but when the idiom was first used metaphorically to mean 'shoot first and ask questions later' (there's another one) it referred to gun-fighters shooting as soon as a gun was out of its holster 
  • Take no  prisoners  – the taking of prisoners is still a feature of modern warfare, but the metaphorical usage (meaning 'be ruthless') dates from a time when prisoner-taking was hedged around with more gentlemanly conventions
The following are ones that (like shoot from the hip) may be interpreted as referring to current technology, but probably first saw the light of day when arms were less sophisticated than they are now.
  • air cover – assistance from on high
  • covering fire – a  distracting attack while something else is happening
  • give it to someone with both barrels – a reference to twin-barrelled shotguns
  • have something in your sights – intending to attack
  • out of a clear blue sky -  of an unexpected attack (reference to fighter planes)
  • Russian Roulette - a means of dicing with death. Now, it doesn't have to be death that you're dicing with. I remember in the '60s a line about 'Vatican Roulette' (5 aspirin pills and a contraceptive one [)]- it may have been on TW3)
  •  sawn-off – first used of a shotgun, adapted to do maximum damage at close range, but now used in other contexts to refer to any DIY reduction of anything.
  • staring  down the barrel of a gun – sure of something unfortunate
These two lists have a lot of overlap. A metaphor is usually supported by at least some vestige of the relevant technology, until the metaphorical usage is established. And the process will no doubt go on. Long after solid projectiles and gunpowder are things of the past and everything is done with lasers and tasers and what-have-you, people will still  be referring to bullet points and silver bullets and smoking guns.

That's all for now. I'll update with a few more links  when I return from my week in Wales but I've got to finish off the "-oo-" trawl before I go tomorrow.

Update 2013.08.23.21:15 Added this PS:
PS Five more from an afternoon's cricket commentary, one that I'm not sure about (the first) and one that relates to military strategy rather than hardware:
  • To have a shot in your locker – maybe this has had an 'a' introduced to make it work for cricket...? I need to check.
  • Gun-barrel-straight
  • To shoot yourself in the foot
  • To go off half-cocked
  • To burn your boats/bridges – this refers to a miltary strategy that ensured that troops far from home would not think about going back
And that last one reminds me of another expression that refers to a no-going-back-now river crossing undertaken by Julius Caesar – crossing the Rubicon. By doing that, Caesar had shown his hand [another fertile source of metaphor, card games – discussed here many moons ago] as having designs on Rome (if I remember the story right – De Bello Gallico-related memories best-before June 1968).
Yechy da, or whatever.

Update: 2013.09.27.12:40
HeadFOOTer updated

Update: 2015.01.20.19:30 ‐ and again; and added this admission:

<autobiographical_note date="30 Jan 1965" type="PS">
At the age of 13¼ I watched the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill. And I remember Richard Dimbleby‘s commentary – especially the words ‘gun carriage‘. I knew what a gun was  – my television-watching was restricted: my father had bought a black-and-white TV to watch the Coronation, but if I wanted to see ITV (or anything in colour) I had to sit on the floor in Archie‘s Room. Archie was my mother's very Scottish father, to whose insistence on a non-Catholic name for his new grandson I owe my name. But on The Lone Ranger I had seen hand-guns and rifles.
But I couldn't for the life of  me see why that horse-drawn vehicle should be called a gun carriage. I was not aware in those days of the historical background, or of its importance in metaphor.
Update: 2016.12.05.15:00 – Deleted obsolete footer.
Update: 2016.12.06.12:50 –  Added PPS and  added explanatory line in red.

PPS I just noticed another one to add to the first list:

  • Hold the fort – Do the necessary for the defence of a fort, either alone or short-handed, while the main body of troops  moves on to another field of activity (perhaps protecting refugee civilians).
Update: 2018.03.31.15:50 – Added PPS

The recent resurrection of (no, not Him, although it's that time of year) the Spitfire has prompted me to wonder whether expressions like "She's a proper little Spitfire"...
<excuse type="sexism">
Sorry, but I think usage bears this out. Spitfires of this metaphorical sort tend to be girls or small women, unexpectedly fierce.
 ... predated the aeroplane. Well, duhh đŸ˜±, only by  4/500 years.

But, in my defence, the word did start out as a weapon of war. The metaphor then took over, and finally Mars reassserted his warlike claim.

The story started, according to Etymonline,  in the sixteenth century with the Florentine cacafuoco, a cannon dubbed shit(sic)-fire. In the early seventeenth century the word surfaced in English, but cleaned up – as spit-fire.
This avoidance of taboo words often happens in language-development. A favourite example of mine is cunny [from the Latin diminutive for a rabbit: cuniculu(m)). Cunny is still discernible, though encoded by phonological wizardry in the furrier's "coney". Honey and money still have their /ʌ/, but coney prudishly hides behind an /əʊ/-shaped figleaf. Prim governesses went a stage further and changed its initial /k/ to /b/ to give the much less near-the-knuckle bunny.
But the rain seems to be holding off, so the garden calls.

No comments:

Post a Comment