Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

What Triggered the Rise of "Young Guns"?

Linguist Neal Whitman draws a bead on the expression young guns (not to be confused with younguns), and finds that sometimes the so-called "Recency Illusion" isn't an illusion after all.

Today I want to talk about the up and coming go-getters of the next generation, the kids who have the fire in the belly, who are ambitious and hungry, who shake things up and challenge the old order, and out of whose way the stodgy veterans of the old-school old guard had better stay. I want to talk about the young guns.

In the last 20 years, the phrase young guns has been used to describe young, aggressive, and dynamic members of a number of fields, as the following examples from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (1990-2010) illustrate.

  • Music: Metheny teams up with two of the hottest young guns on the New York City jazz scene, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart.
  • Business: Wide-eyed startups like, Kozmo and Napster burned through hype and money without serving up that one crucial thing—a viable business plan. This new crew is struggling to avoid the same mistakes.... That's why they've gathered here tonight. This is one of the first meetings of a secret society they formed and jokingly called the Young Guns; a more apt moniker might be the Valley Brats.
  • Technology: A seventy-five-dollar hourly fee to hack is certainly an incentive, but money isn't the primary attraction. They like to fancy themselves as young guns for hire—Samurai Hackers.
  • Writing: In a swift few years, the writer [Jay McInerney] was transformed in print from sexy, envied young gun to haggard prey for the gossip columns.
  • Politics: That's the weakest minority since the party entered the 1994 elections with 177 seats, when young guns like Boehner, tired of the GOP's 50-year run in the House minority, crafted an ambitious reform agenda that vaulted them into the majority.
  • Sports: This is how Davis continues to keep pace with the young guns on the PGA Tour.

Politics and sports deserve special mention as the most likely places to find young guns these days. A search for "young guns" in the Google News Archive for the past month brings up almost exclusively sports- and politics-related stories. The political stories have been dominated by a group of Republican members of the House of Representatives calling themselves the Young Guns, whose book by the same name was published last month. They are hoping that voter dissatisfaction with the GOP, as manifested in recent Tea Party wins, will help them and newly recruited Young Guns candidates take over the leadership of the Republican party. Representative Boehner, by the way—a young gun himself in 1994—is not a Young Gun.

As for sports, in addition to the Professional Golfers' Assocation, there are young guns in the National Football League, National Hockey League, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, and NASCAR. In fact, every year since 2003, Gillette has anchored promotional campaigns around the handful of NASCAR racers they've selected as that year's "Young Guns."

Why the enthusiasm for young guns? What gave it the edge over, for instance, young go-getters, or up-and-comers? (Go-getters and up-and-comers are morphologically interesting words, but that's another story.) Or young Turks? Actually, I'm not surprised that young guns is more popular than young Turks, an expression that has become semantically opaque (at least for most Americans) in the century since the political movement it named was current. But why guns instead of fighters or some other word?

You might imagine that it has something to do with the 1988 movie Young Guns, but if you're a regular reader here, you're probably also telling yourself not to jump to conclusions. Blaming a prominent piece of pop-culture is just a little too easy, and besides, you have to watch out for the Recency Illusion. People have probably been using young guns this way for years, right?

It's true that young guns has had something like its current meaning for more than a century, but in fact, young guns really has been gaining popularity in recent years, and Young Guns the movie really does bear a lot of responsibility for the gain.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, since at least 1818 the word gun has been used to denote a person bearing a gun, using the same kind of metonymy that has us calling corporate executives suits, and troops boots on the ground. Typical guns have included artillery specialists, gangsters (as in a hired gun), and members of a shooting party. The "shooting party" meaning seems to be the origin of young guns, which referred, naturally, to younger members of the party. Sometimes the term had a connotation of inexperience and incompetence, as in this passage from an 1840 novel (found via Google Books):

He was more vehement than any body in his own promises and even insinuated that if any mischief happened to the rare birds it would probably arise from the 'young guns.'

Other attestations, though, show that even then, young guns also underlined the greater strength, vigor, and stamina of youth. For example, an 1888 article in a hunting magazine states:

Beyond all doubt, fine shooting with the gun, must, and will desert, the sportsman of sixty years of age, let him think of himself as he may. Once in a way he may warm up and acquit himself in something like his old form, but let him hear ... what is said about him by the keepers and young guns around.

However, the term stayed confined to domains that actually involved guns, and was rare up through the 1940s. A search for the phrase "young guns" in the Google News Archive brings up between one and six hits per decade from 1880 through 1949, and that's including the irrelevant ones where the word "young" at the end of one phrase accidentally bumps up against "guns" in the next.

Then, in 1956, the Western movie The Young Guns hit the theatres. In it, a son tries to escape the reputation of his father, hanged for bank robbery, but falls in with a gang of Old West juvenile delinquents. A reviewer on IMDb calls it "Cowboy without a Cause." Six years later, another Western with young guns in the title came out: The Young Guns of Texas. These two movies were enough to bump up the numbers for young gun attestations in the Google News Archive into the low hundreds during the 1950s through the 1970s.

Now with the idea of rash, aggressive youth in the forefront, the term began to be used more figuratively, and less about situations involving actual guns. A column by Marquis Childs from March 21, 1962, titled "'Young Guns' in an Old War," uses the term to refer to Ted, Jack, and Bobby Kennedy as 30-year-old Ted prepares to run for the Senate, and thus provides the earliest political use of the phrase that I've found. ("President Kennedy will presumably have six more years in the White House," Childs writes.)

Young guns also began to be used in sports contexts in the 1960s. A 1963 Los Angeles Times article about the UCLA basketball team facing Arizona State referred to the Arizona team as young guns. On April 6, 1976, the Penn State University newspaper quoted someone referring to "young guns" on a team of hockey players.

Still, most of the hits for young guns during these decades are references to the movies The Young Guns or The Young Guns of Texas. That begins to change in the 1980s, when the sports references expand their range into other sports. GNA contains young guns references to the Dallas Cowboys (1983), the Houston Rockets (1984), tennis players challenging Jimmy Connors (1985), the Atlanta Braves (1989) and other baseball teams. Sometimes just the younger players on a team are the young guns; sometimes the whole team is.

What gave young guns this boost in starting in the early 1980s? Maybe the meme had simply been spreading among sportswriters and was now beginning to show up more. Or the term might have simply become more familiar thanks to the British pop duo Wham!, who got their lucky break in 1982, appearing on the BBC to perform what became their first hit, "Young Guns (Go for It!)."

Still and all, the real surge in the use of young guns was yet to come.

In 1988, the movie Young Guns hit the theatres, telling the somewhat true story of Billy the Kid and his posse. The Young in the title highlighted not only the youth of its ensemble cast (which included Lou Diamond Phillips and Dermot Mulroney), but also the status of three of its members as second-generation actors: Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, sons of actor Martin Sheen; and Kiefer Sutherland, son of Donald. One reviewer called it a "Brat Pack Western."

That year, attestations for young guns in the GNA go from the dozen or so hits per year to the hundreds, with a gradual increase to over 1000 in 2002, and over 2000 in 2006. In the post-Young Guns news archives, we find an expansion of the term to talk about more sports (including golf) at more levels. GNA contains examples from 1989 and 1991 of young guns referring to high school sports teams that for one reason or another don't have any seniors that year. In the early 1990s, we also see high schools sports teams that have actually named themselves the Young Guns. And in 1996, the second US Olympic basketball team was known not only as the Dream Team, but as the Young Guns.

In the 1990s, young guns also expanded beyond its range of politics and sports, to describe ambitious and talented young people in business and the arts. In this decade we find young guns applied to entrepreneurs, financial managers, artists honored by the Art Director's Club, and members of the Motion Picture Academy.

And now in 2010, young guns continues to be the word (or cliché) of choice for the new generation in any endeavor. Some writers already poke fun at the phrase by talking about former young guns as "old guns," but in years to come, we can expect to hear this phrase in seriousness, and maybe even phrases like "guns of all ages."

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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday October 7th 2010, 12:49 PM
Comment by: Clifford W. (West Point, CA)
If old people don't like something, it must be good.
Friday October 8th 2010, 7:16 PM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
One of the young guns in my Intro to Literature class referred to a character as a "tool shed" (an expression I've never heard). I haven't researched it yet, but in the context, a "tool shed" seems to be the opposite of a "young gun."
Friday October 8th 2010, 9:41 PM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
Dr. Joyce:

Seems a 'tool shed' would be a functional illiterate.

Do you think that Billy the Kid would be considered a 'young gun'?

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