Language watchers, gun debate participants and other folks inclined to pounce on perceived inconsistencies have noted the irony of Vice President Joe Biden saying that when it comes to gun reform, he's "shooting for" a specific deadline, while warning that "no silver bullet" exists.
I'm not sure it's ironic—a term I'm always afraid to employ for fear of stirring up the angry hornets who live in the "that's not irony, that's coincidence" nest. (Poor Alanis Morissette.)
It's certainly interesting though. Whether, in the course of discussing plans for stemming gun violence, Biden evoked gun terminology for effect, or out of habit, is hard to say. We mention guns a lot (big gun, son of a gun, young gun, up against the gun.)
President Obama, responding to a recent question about health care spending, told reporters, "What I will not do is to have that negotiation with a gun at the head of the American people."
And it's not just guns. We shoot from the hip, take aim, go ballistic, pull the trigger, you get the idea.
"It's in the linguistic DNA," says Burton Bledstein, UIC professor emeritus of history. "It's experiential and personal and distinctive. It's the way people express themselves in all kinds of areas."
He rattled off a few dozen examples, including: stick to one's guns; under the gun; jump the gun; half-cocked; shoot the breeze, trouble shoot; under fire; on the mark; miss the target.
"You find it across occupational groups," Bledstein says. "Business people use it. Mechanics, soda jerks, drivers, athletes. It's more than a language—it's a lingo, a jargon, a vernacular, an argot."
Some are inclined to attach our reliance on gun terminology to an affinity for the Wild West slice of American history. Bledstein calls that nonsense.
"That gives the idea that if we didn't have the Wild West, we'd have a lawful society and wouldn't have any guns," he says. "That's just not the case. There we as many, if not more, guns in cities and rural areas. Guns have certainly never been limited to the Wild West."
Phrases that evoke guns and their various and deadly functions are common because, quite simply, they're powerful, Bledstein contends.
"It has to do with the power of gun technology, which plays a very large historic role since the middle of the 19th century," he says. "The gun transformed the world—certainly it transformed the nature of war. But even people who don't go to war—not very many people do—vicariously experience the power of this tool."
That translates into powerful expression.
"It's the way we express ourselves emotionally," he says. "It's a feeling. It makes one feel more powerful. It's visceral and graphic."
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