Ad and marketing creatives

Shoot! How Gun Idioms Color Our Speech

Last month the police department in my city announced a buyback program called “Guns to Gardens”: members of the community who turned in their firearms received gift cards, and the surrendered guns were repurposed into garden tools—a modern-day twist on “swords to plowshares.”

I didn’t participate in the buyback—I’ve never owned a gun—but the announcement got me thinking about another way firearms are recycled: into idioms and metaphors. Here are some of the ways in which our everyday language is shot through with figurative weaponry.

If you’re sticking to your guns you’re refusing to compromise or change your mind; the idiom, from 1841, originally had a literal meaning: to not flinch under fire. If you’re gun shy, on the other hand, you’re nervous and averse to conflict. (This idiom, dating from 1884, originally applied to hunting dogs.) You might jump the gun (1912) and act prematurely, like a runner who takes off before the starting pistol fires. You might push away an opponent using your guns—your literal, physical arms—a slang term that dates back to the 1920s, when sportswriters used it to refer to baseball players’ strong, accurate throwing arms. You could be under the gun (1900): facing pressure to meet an obligation, as if a gun were held to your head. Or you might fall in with some young guns—youthful, ambitious people in an organization. A young gun was originally a small pistol (1822), then a young, inexperienced shooter (1840). By 1929 it had acquired its current figurative meaning.

Do you remember eating Quaker Puffed Rice or Puffed Wheat cereals? Then you may recall that the products were marketed as being “shot from guns.” That was no advertising hyperbole: the grains actually were loaded into cannon-like cylinders, subjected to high heat, and propelled with a big bang. From the cereals’ introduction in 1904 until they were discontinued in 2019, the explosive “Shot from Guns” tagline helped popularize them among generations of young-gun breakfast-eaters.

Someone who shoots from the hip is rash and impulsive, not unlike a gunslinger who draws a gun from a holster and fires without raising it. Such a person runs the risk of shooting himself in the foot—doing or saying something that may cause him problems—or merely having a scattershot approach. The original meaning of scattershot, from the 1830s, was “a shot fired from a scattergun”—another word for shotgun—but it’s had its current meaning of “haphazard” or “random” since the late 1950s. Better to be a straight shooter: an honest person. “Straight” has been a synonym for “ethical” since the 16th century; “straight shooter” first appeared in print in Sinclair Lewis’s 1928 satirical novel The Man Who Knew Coolidge.

A shotgun—the term originated in the US in the 1820s, although some types of shotguns had been used earlier in England—fires small shot as opposed to bullets. To ride shotgun means to sit in the passenger seat of a vehicle; although the idiom calls to mind 19th-century stagecoach sentries, it didn’t appear in print until 1912, well into the automobile era. Shotgun seat is even more recent, first appearing in 1940 in a nostalgic publication about the Pony Express. A shotgun wedding or marriage is undertaken in haste because the bride is pregnant (and, in the popular imagination, her father is holding a shotgun to the groom). Once again we can credit Sinclair Lewis: He put shotgun wedding in print, in the pages of his 1927 novel Elmer Gantry.

Then there’s shotgun house or shotgun apartment: a dwelling with rooms set in a line on either side of a hallway, down which one could fire a shotgun from front to back without hitting anything. The term was popularized in the late 1930s and 1940s.

Bullets are used in figurative language for their appearance, their density, and their speed. In the first category, a typographic bullet (1950) is a symbol such as a round dot that marks or emphasizes a paragraph or an

  • item
  • in
  • a
  • list.

This sense of bullet gave rise to bullet point (1983): “a concise statement or summary marked with a typographical bullet,” according to the OED. In the 1960s and 1970s, Cashbox magazine, a music publication, used red bullet symbols to denote hit records that had entered the charts in a high position or were climbing rapidly: “with a bullet.”

Lead bullets are hard and dense, which is why the American colloquialism sweating bullets is so vivid: it suggests intense distress, anxiety, or worry.

The “fast” sense of bullet appears in bullet train, a passenger train that travels at very high speeds. The first such train was the Japanese Shinkansen, which was completed before the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The literal meaning of “Shinkansen” is “new main line”; it was English-language publications that dubbed it “bullet train,” beginning in 1966.

Following the June 24, 2022, US Supreme Court decision overturning federal abortion protections, some American states implemented trigger laws that limited or banned abortion within their jurisdictions. A trigger law is unenforceable when it’s passed, becoming enforceable only after one legal factor is changed, “triggering” the law’s implementation. A trigger warning is a statement that alerts a reader or viewer to the presence of content that may “trigger” distress; the term’s first published use, according to the OED, was in the title of a September 1993 Usenet group post: “possible movie trigger warning.” Trigger finger is a nickname for a medical condition in which a finger (or, frequently, thumb) becomes stuck in a bent position as though it were pulling on a gun’s trigger. The condition, also known as stenosing tenosynovitis, is caused by inflammation around the tendon in the affected finger.

Surefire was originally (1838) an American modifier for a reliable or accurate firearm. By the 1840s, it was being used metaphorically as a synonym for “guaranteed.” There are more than 40 live SUREFIRE trademarks in the US trademark database for such non-firearm products as hunting knives, pharmaceutical reagents, and vacation timeshares.

Firing squad first entered the lexicon in 1861, during the American Civil War. More than a century later, a New Mexico newspaper published a letter containing the phrase circular firing squad, “in which members of the squad will kill all that is worthwhile within the circle as well as themselves in the cross-fire.” Circular firing squad has since come to describe any political party or organization experiencing internal disputes and mutual recrimination.

A firing line originally (1839) referred to a long fuse used to ignite a mine explosion. In the 1850s it took on two new senses: a line from which guns are fired at targets, and the front line of troops in a battle. Those two newer senses inspired Firing Line, the name of a public-affairs talk show hosted by conservative pundit William F. Buckley that ran from 1966 to 1999 on US television. It was revived in 2018 with host Margaret Hoover.

This list is far from comprehensive. If you have a favorite gun-related idiom, please share it in the comments!

And here’s a parting shot: The Visual Thesaurus’s parent company is pursuing a new direction, which means that after nearly 16 years, this is my last column for the Visual Thesaurus. It’s been a pleasure, and I’ve especially enjoyed your thoughtful comments. Thanks for reading!

Click here to read more articles from Candlepower.

Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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