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Word Tasting Note: "Bayonet"

When Obama and Romney crossed swords in last night's presidential debate, the word bayonet made a surprising but memorable appearance. That inspired James Harbeck to compose the latest in his series of Word Tasting Notes.

I guess soldiers are using bayonets less and less these days. (Horses too.) Actually, even a century ago they were responsible for less than one percent of battlefield casualties. But they do have their uses.

Heck, I use a bayonet pretty much every day.

OK, no, I use a bayonet mount.

Let me back up a bit first. A bayonet is a blade that can be affixed to the front end of a rifle, allowing the soldier to use the rifle as a stabbing or cutting weapon. I'm put in mind of a cartoon — I wish I could remember where I saw it; MAD Magazine perhaps — where a man who's about to be executed by a firing squad is asked if he has a last wish. "Yes," says the man, "I wish not to be shot." The colonel tells him his wish is granted. Ah, the condemned man smiles! Then the colonel turns and shouts to the squad, "Fix bayonets!"

Bayonet is a reasonably straightforward word. It's pronounced like three English words, "bay o net"... seems almost too easy, doesn't it? (It also has the ring of "ban it" in a strong Southern US accent. But bayonets have not been banned. They're safer than most weapons — for the victim. Much more dangerous for the attacker than the means of killing preferred today.) I suppose if you buy one in an online auction, you could call it an ebayonet. After all, it looks like a San Francisco (or Boston) network: bay-o-net. But no, it's a now well established symbol of military aggression and even valour. It may not be needed that much in battle, but the image of a knife plus a gun has such epic appeal — it's two, two, two deaths in one!

It is thought that bayonet comes from French Bayonnette, referring to an origin in the city of Bayonne. What the French were doing in New Jersey I don't know. Oh, wait — the other Bayonne, the one with the really good ham (a French equivalent to prosciutto — slice it thin!).

Anyway, when the bayonet was first attached to guns, the gun in use was the musket, and they took some time to reload — time during which a wounded enemy or animal (they were also used for hunting) could escape or attack, endangering the sporting baronet or his huntsman — or the soldier, of course. So the idea came along of fixing this flat dagger, called a Bayonnette or bayonet, to the front of the gun quickly so you had a nice long stabbing thing. (Yes, yes, you could just stab the beast or man with a blade in your hand, but that would mean getting very close. Better to have an extra several feet of reach. Even at that it's awfully close.) Ere long bayonets were permanently associated with long guns.

But at first they fixed it on by sticking it into the muzzle of the gun. Well, that had its hazards, which I think are probably fairly guessable. When you had fixed bayonet, you could not shoot! So they quickly came up with the idea of attaching it to the side of the barrel at the front, so you could fire with the bayonet in place. Various styles and mounts were developed. You wanted something that was easy to use but would hold the bayonet in place no matter how much stabbing and pulling you did. Or digging and cutting — many bayonets were designed to be usable also for cutting wires (using serrated edges), digging in the ground (with a more spade-like shape), and other similarly utile applications for a sharp and pointy tool. (They're useful detached, too; I'm sure many a bagel or beignet or even Bayonne ham has been sliced with one in a pinch.)

One kind of mount developed for bayonets involved rings with flanges — or pins and grooves — that would be matched and then twisted into place to overlap and hold the bayonet in place. As with many things developed for military purposes, it came to have civilian applications too. Some kinds of light bulbs, for instance.

Photographers who use cameras with interchangeable lenses are generally familiar with a bayonet mount: put lens against body, ring to ring, matching the dots, then twist a fraction of a turn until you get a satisfying click. And then — ironically — with bayonet fixed, you are ready to shoot. You may not be mounted (on a horse or otherwise), but your lens is, and we hope it's nice and sharp. And you'll be taking pictures, not lives.

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James Harbeck is an editor by day, a designer by night, and a writer by Jove! His love of wine tasting crossed with his love of language to spawn word tasting notes, which appear daily at his blog, Sesquiotica. Buy his just-released book of salacious verse on English usage, Songs of Love and Grammar, on Lulu.com. Click here to read more articles by James Harbeck.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday October 23rd 2012, 8:18 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Interesting bayonet history.
Thanks to the debater who voiced it.
Tuesday October 23rd 2012, 9:26 AM
Comment by: dorothy S.
Referring to the second paragraph of your article, since when did horses use bayonets? Please, groaning does not become you.
Tuesday October 23rd 2012, 10:55 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Dorothy, thanks for providing the first chuckle of my day! And James, thanks for being Dorothy's straight man, and for your informative and very clever article - your fun with words got my face smiling and my brain awake!

The Happy Quibbler
Tuesday October 23rd 2012, 4:07 PM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
Very nice article and fun to read. So much to learn and so little time, so I'm thankful to those who have made it their profession to write for those of us who read. Very interesting!
Wednesday October 24th 2012, 11:44 AM
Comment by: Michael (AZ)
Indeed, insightful bayonet history, thank you.
Wednesday October 24th 2012, 2:59 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Now I know why my light bulb fittings are called bayonets. Thank you James

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