Landon Y. Jones is the author of “William Clark and the Shaping of the West” and “Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation.”
Sometimes it’s the offhand remark that’s the most telling. Indeed, the way we Americans casually, often unthinkingly, incorporate gun metaphors into our everyday slang says a lot about how deeply embedded guns are in our culture and our politics, and how difficult it is to control or extract them. Consider this list, presented as bullet points — which are themselves so conventional, so central to the typography of mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations, that you can forget what their shape represents.
● Bite the bullet: Meaning to power through something unpleasant, the term comes from the practice of providing wounded soldiers a bullet to clench their teeth on while they underwent surgery without anesthetic. British writer Rudyard Kipling is thought to have been the first to use the expression figuratively. His 1891 novel “The Light That Failed” includes this line: “Bite on the bullet, old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid.” These days, people are more likely to bite the bullet if they have to accept an unpleasant truth. And politicians are often urged to bite the bullet and compromise — suggesting that coming together to pass legislation is as painful as amputation while fully sentient.
● Fizzle: In the late Middle Ages, “fizzle” was an onomatopoeic word used when someone surreptitiously passed gas. But its modern meaning is more closely associated with guns. For early muzzle-loading flintlock rifles, gunpowder was poured down the barrel, secured with a piece of cloth tamped into place by a ramrod and then ignited by a spark struck from the flint. If it misfired, you had a “fizzle.” So writing about “the great gun-control fizzle” after the Newtown shooting is more freighted than writing that a politician’s prospects have fizzled. See also: “flash in the pan” (when the gunpowder flares but the bullet fails to fire) and “blow your wad” (when you’ve forgotten to load shot before firing the gun, therefore wasting the “wad” of cloth; the phrase only later took on a sexual connotation).
● Hotshot: Washington is full of them: hotshot politicians, hotshot lobbyists, hotshot lawyers, hotshot journalists. There are also the elite hotshot crews who work the fire lines in the American West. Use of the term to suggest confident success — or an overinflated sense of one’s own success — dates to the 1920s. But earlier, a hotshot was understood to be a reckless person, overeager to discharge his weapon. And of course, Washington doesn’t have any people like that. Literally, hotshots were cannonballs warmed in a furnace and designed to set fire to enemy warships or buildings. The metaphor, though, may have more to do with being hotheaded. See also: big shot, big gun, trigger-happy.
● Keep your powder dry: Meaning preserve your resources until you really need them, the phrase relates to the idea that wet gunpowder won’t explode. The 1834 poem “Oliver’s Advice” attributes the line to Oliver Cromwell, who supposedly told his troops as they were preparing to cross a river at the opening of the English civil war: “Put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.” In February, President Obama used the phrase while meeting with Senate Democrats opposed to expanding international trade. What the president probably had in mind was that the caucus should avoid internal squabbles and get behind the goal of retaining its Senate majority. But as William Safire noted after President Bill Clinton used “keep your powder dry” to encourage bipartisan cooperation, “The phrase keep your powder dry is not limited to ‘stay calm’ but carries an implicit, most ominous threat: ‘and be prepared to blow the enemy’s head off at the propitious moment.’ ”
● Loaded for bear: Meaning prepared for a serious confrontation, it derives from the idea that hunters want the right ammunition for the game they’re going after. On the American frontier, if you were hunting squirrels, a small shot would suffice. But for brown bear, you needed a more powerful charge of powder and a heavier shot. Sarah Palin titled a fundraising video for 2014 candidates “Loaded for Bear” — signaling both her rough-and-ready Alaska roots and her willingness to take on big political fights. The Alaska Fish and Game Department notes, however, that “how accurately you shoot is far more important than the type of rifle, cartridge, and bullet you choose.”
● Offhand remark: A comment made without preparation or premeditation, this term has its origins in “offhand shooting” — firing a rifle quickly, while standing, without using the steadying support of a rest. When preparing for the Lewis and Clark expedition, Meriwether Lewis instructed his riflemen to practice “at the distance of 50 yards offhand.” Last fall, an offhand remark from Secretary of State John Kerry is thought to have led to the Syrian government’s agreement to surrender its chemical weapons. He’d probably like to be known more for his careful diplomacy.
● Potshot: Originally a gunshot fired at an easy target, without regard to style or sportsmanship, in the hope of killing an animal just to fill a cooking pot. Today it suggests opportunistic or unfair criticism — and is standard to the political arsenal, especially during staged political debates. (And when one candidate appears to win the debate handily, we can say he was able to eat his opponent for breakfast.) See also: cheap shot, gotcha, zinger.
● Silver bullet: In folklore across many cultures, a bullet made of silver is the only way to kill a werewolf or devil. The Lone Ranger was armed with them in the 1950s TV show and the 2013 movie. Today, silver bullets are most useful for scorning the idea that there are simple solutions to complicated problems. Condoleezza Rice testified that “there was no silver bullet that could have stopped the 9/11 attack.” Obama resorts to the “no silver bullet” formula so frequently — in the context of job growth, energy, health care — that The Washington Post has called it “a metaphorical dependency that makes you wish somebody could slip him a box or two of the ammo.” Wouldn’t do much good, though. Experiments suggest that silver bullets are slower and less accurate than lead ones.
● Small-bore: Refers to a narrow gun barrel, with room for a bullet of .22 caliber or less. It comes up in politics to describe politicians with narrow outlooks and policy proposals that are trivial or incremental. It’s a perennial criticism of State of the Union addresses packed with line items to please every constituency.
● Snapshot: The hunting term refers to a hurried shot, fired without taking aim, at a moving animal. It’s been used in the context of photographs and of otherwise capturing a moment in time since the 1890s. Today, people often talk about polling providing a snapshot of public opinion. Presumably, though, reputable pollsters use more rigorous methodology than the metaphor implies.
Like many American boys, I spent a good part of my pre-adolescence twirling toy six-shooters, lining up targets in the crosshairs and aiming for the whites of their eyes. I succeeded in outgrowing most of those habits, but the metaphors lingered. These words are at home in our language. I only began to notice how old they are, and how persistently they live on, when working on a biography of William Clark and reading Lewis’s and Clark’s original journals, which show how firearms played a major role in what they did and thought about.
We should be watchful that, while we argue in the front yard about gun-control laws today, the metaphors associated with gun use don’t sneak through the back door.
Landon Y. Jones last wrote for Outlook about how there are too many celebrities, not enough heroes. And last week Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for Outlook about “The five extra words that could fix the Second Amendment.”