Monday, April 21, 2014

Speaking in Loaded Terms

I think I've written on this subject before, but my memory's not what it used to be, and I'm not sure. Bear with me if you've heard this discussion in the past ...

As you know, I'm a great lover of language. I read voraciously, have a bachelor's degree in Linguistics, speak German, recognize Russian two times out of three, and get by in English. One of my big fascinations in the larger field of linguistics is the area of semantics*. There are three major branches of semantics: formal semantics, which studies the logical aspects of meaning, such as sense, reference, implication, and logical form; lexical semantics, which studies word meanings and their interrelations, and conceptual semantics, which studies the cognitive structure of meaning. Today, I'd like to talk about an interesting topic at the intersection of formal and lexical semantics.

We all know that Americans have a love affair with guns that borders on worship. About the worst thing you can do in this country other than molesting a child is implying in any way that there should be any limitations ... or hypothetical discussions of possible limitations ... on any aspect of the Holy Right to Keep and Bear Arms, let me hear you say "halleluja!". And to many people, the latter is worse than the former. To a lot of Americans, the Constitution consists of the Second Amendment and a lot of other stuff nobody really understands.

Guns are so much a part of American life and culture that the language of firearms is deeply woven into our psyche and our language. In a very interesting article published in yesterday's Washington Post titled Loaded Language, Landon Y. Jones discussed the extent to which gun metaphors have permeated American English. Among the better-known terms and expressions he discusses are:

Bite the Bullet;



Silver Bullet; and,

Keep Your Powder Dry.

There are also a few terms that most of us don't usually connect with their derivation in the terminology of firearms, such as:


Flash in the Pan; and,

Offhand Remark.

How often have you seen some talking head on TV take a cheap shot at someone to score a political point? And if you use Microsoft's PowerPoint to do presentations for work (and who doesn't?), you know that it helps you arrange your thoughts in bullet points. William F. Buckley's Firing Line was one of the longest-running public affairs show in television history. The Washington DC basketball franchise used to be called the Bullets until concern over the city's skyrocketing murder rate led the owners to change the name to Wizards. When we really want to win in serious negotiations, we bring in the big guns or roll out the heavy artillery. We sometimes celebrate ... or, at least, participate in ... shotgun weddings. Someone really good at his job is often called a top gun. In heated arguments, participants will often deliver a broadside against their opponents, which can sometimes prove to be a dud if the speaker shoots from the hip without making sure of his facts**.

So, Dear Readers, what do you think the chances of a reasonable discussion of gun rights, responsibilities, and controls are likely to be when the subject is so fraught with emotion and so ingrained in the very language we speak? It's surely a long shot.

Have a good day. Don't shoot the messenger. More thoughts tomorrow.


* Would an anti-semanticist be a person who irrationally hates Jewish linguists? Discuss.

** Which happens quite a bit nowadays, let me tell you.


eViL pOp TaRt said...

A fine article, Bilbo! I never noticed how rife our everyday usage is with weapon-related terms.

As for the Second Amendment, some of the extremists tend to ignore the little clause regarding the well-regulated militia.

Duckbutt said...

There is, by contrast, very little in the way of hug-related metaphors in everyday usage.

Lately the term kickass has been increasing in frequency. Will there be a trend toward hiney abuse metaphors?

Elvis Wearing a Bra on His Head said...

So is our language loaded in favor of unregulated handguns?

Bilbo said...

Angel - the Supreme Court already weighed in on that part of the Second Amendment, basically ignoring that part of the verbiage.

Duck - I shudder to think about what those metaphors might be.

Elvis - No, just in favor of firearms in general. And "loaded" is a firearms-related term, too, now that I think about it.

Mike said...

I got a bang out of this post.