One of the many joys of teaching college-age students is that I get to hear the latest slang words and phrases in their everyday conversations. If you don’t mind hearing the word dude at the beginning of every sentence, it can be an interesting way of doing informal linguistic research. One of the phrases I have learned recently is to put someone on blast which roughly means to “embarrass someone by reporting his or her bad behavior.” They also call this putting someone on front street. However, putting someone on blast is also considered to be bad behavior – the perpetrator may be described as being cold or a cold piece. Here is a fictional conversation between two of my students, one of whom has just made fun of the other for getting a bad score on his test in front of the other students.
“Dude, why do you have to put me on blast like that. You’re a cold piece.”
“Sorry, bro. I didn’t mean to put you on front street. My bad.”
The word blast very interesting when it is used in slang phrase or metaphors because it has its origins in warfare and explosions. Of course, literally, the word blast means to explode as in a bomb detonation or a cannon firing. Metaphorically, to blast someone or something means to harshly criticize it or them. This usage is also an example of hyperbole (hi-PER-bo-lee) or great exaggeration, as in “I had a million pages of homework last night.” Comparing the criticism of something or someone to the explosion of a bomb is indeed hyperbolic. Nonetheless, it is very common to hear examples of the metaphorical usage of blast. Recently, I read it in headlines after an international deal was reached to curb nuclear bomb development in Iran. One headline noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not like the deal by saying, “Netanyahu blasts ‘very, very bad’ Iran nuclear agreement” (see the full article here) In other news, we can also see this headline from another article, “Hill Republicans blast Clinton’s email explanation” or here, “Democrats Blast Schumer Threat to Kill Iran Deal.”
Dude, here are a few more examples derived from experiences of explosions, cannons and guns from warfare.
stick to your guns
The terms guns usually refers to handguns, not rifles. Handguns have been used for centuries in warfare, police work and personal protection. The word gun originally meant a device used in warfare in the Middle Ages to throw rocks or other projectiles. Many metaphors for guns are also taken from the days of the Wild West – the wild, generally lawless period in the 1800s in the Midwest and Western states of America. However these metaphors may also be derived from guns used in military endeavors. For example, the phrase stick to your guns means that one must not back down from a fight. This idea was derived from the notion of a soldier continuing to stand and fight when a battle seems to be lost.
Example: When Barack Obama tried to pass a new health care bill in 2010, he had many opponents that tried to weaken the bill. However, he stuck to his guns and got most of the bill passed the way he wanted it.
When a gun is fired, a small amount of smoke is released from the barrel after the gunpowder in the bullet explodes. A smoking gun indicates that the gun has just been fired. Metaphorically, a smoking gun refers to evidence that something has just happened.
Example: After Barack Obama was elected president, many critics claimed that the was not a U.S. citizen and spent years searching for the smoking gun, a birth certificate from Kenya, but it was never found.
In a process known as synecdoche, sometimes the name of an object used by a person is later used to describe the person and not simple the tool. In this case, a person using a gun may also be called a gun. Specifically, a young gun is a young person who uses a gun in a forceful and accurate manner. Thus, metaphorically, a young gun is any young person who is very good at what he or she does and is forceful and confident in the work.
Example: Most members of Congress are middle-aged or older. However, sometimes some young guns are elected and provide youthful energy to the body of lawmakers.
turn their guns on
In a battle, soldiers sometimes must fight the enemy from several different sides. When they are attacked by a new force, the soldiers must turn their guns to fire at the new enemy. Metaphorically, people can turn their guns on other people if they start verbally attacking their opponents in a debate or argument.
Example: In a presidential debate, some candidates may turn their guns on other candidates to prove that they are superior to them.
Every gun has a trigger mechanism that fires the bullet. In common terms, a trigger is any action that starts a new process.
Example: In 2011, a special super committee was formed to solve the country’s budget problems. When they did not find a solution before the deadline, budget cuts in military spending and social services were automatically triggered.
trigger a recession
The term trigger can also be used to indicate the beginning of the end of something.
Example: Some experts believe that the recession of 2008 was triggered by the Wall Street bank failures.
If someone frequently fires a gun, we may that this person is trigger happy. In politics, a government official may be called trigger happy if he or she is prone to go to war very easily.
Example: Many people thought that George W. Bush was a bit trigger happy going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan during his presidency. However, Barack Obama was also keen to continue the war in Afghanistan as well when he became president.
fire a campaign manager
We say that to shoot a gun is to fire it. This term derives from the earlier practice of setting fire to the gunpowder in a weapon to launch or discharge the projectile. In common terms, we also use the word fire to mean discharging someone from a job.
Example: Many presidential candidates end up firing their campaign manager if they do not seem to be on track to win the election.
We can also use the word fire to mean sending off a letter or email in a quick manner.
Example: Presidential candidates may fire off an email to the campaign staff if they think something is not going as planned.
In the early days of guns and rifles, they did not always work properly. Sometimes the gunpowder did not explode and the bullet was not discharged. More reliable weapons were sometimes referred to as surefire guns or rifles if they were more likely to work on a regular basis. In modern terms, a plan or process that is almost certain to work properly is called a surefire way.
Example: In American politics, a surefire way for a man to lose an election is to be caught in an adulterous relationship with another woman.
With guns as well as bows and arrows, people practice shooting their weapons by aiming at a target a long distance away. The literal target has been changed to mean a metaphorical goal in a process or project. In politics, candidates and elected officials try to please their constituents who may vote for them. A specific group of people in a certain area with certain political views is called a demographic. Trying to please this group of people is called targeting the demographic.
Example: Democrats tend to work with wealthy liberal voters as their target demographic for raising campaign money.
call the shots
Firing a weapon can be called taking a shot. In the military, the person in command of an army or navy who decides when weapons are to be fired may be described as the person who is calling the shots. In metaphorical terms, a person who makes important decisions within an organization may also be referred to as someone who calls the shots.
Example: In a presidential election, the campaign manager, handpicked by the candidate, is the one calling the shots for scheduling public appearances and rallies.
To shoot at a target far away is called taking a long shot. The farther away the target, the less likely the person can accurately hit it. In common terms, a long shot is something that has a very low likelihood of happening. In politics, a long shot is a person who is not likely to win an election or an event that is not likely to happen.
Example: When Barack Obama ran for president, many people thought it was a long shot for him to win the election since he was not very well known at the time.
A discharge from a large gun or cannon may be called a big shot. Metaphorically, a very important person in an organization may also be referred to as a big shot.
Example: People running for public office in the United States usually do not win the election unless they are backed with the money and support of big shots in local or national business circles.
Someone who is very accurate at shooting a gun is called a straight shooter. Metaphorically, a person who is always honest and does not make up stories or fabrications is also sometimes called a straight shooter.
Example: John McCain has been known for years as a straight shooter since he always stuck to his principles and told the truth in Congress.
shoot back, fire back
In a battle, enemies shoot at each other with guns. When one side fires first, the other side shoots or fires back. We may also use the phrase shoot back to refer to someone responding to an accusation or challenging point in an argument.
Example: During the 1988 vice-presidential debate between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen, Quayle compared himself to former president John F. Kennedy, also called Jack Kennedy, in terms of length of service in Congress. Bentsen, a former colleague of Kennedy’s shot back, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
In years past, a person who commits treason against his or her country is sometimes shot by a firing squad, a group of soldiers with rifles trained for just such an action. Theoretically a firing squad lined up in a circle would shoot and kill themselves. In common terms, a circular firing squad is a group of people who work against their own interests.
Example: When Hilary Clinton ran for the Democratic candidate in the presidential primary in 2007, her campaign was not very successful. Critics later claimed that the campaign staff was like a circular firing squad.
The size of a bullet that can fit in a gun barrel is called its caliber. To measure the exact size of something later came to be called to calibrate something. In modern terms, any difficult process or plan can be calibrated by experts to determine success.
Example: Barack Obama knew that he would have a hard time getting Democratic bills passed in Congress. However, he apparently did not calibrate the tremendous difficulty he would have dealing with the Republican-held House of Representatives during his two terms.
The term salvo is from an old Italian word meaning a group of guns or cannons fired at the same time. It is still used in military jargon to mean the same thing. However, in politics, any large-scale attack of one person against another may also be called a salvo, especially common in presidential elections.
Example: During a presidential debate, one candidate may launch an opening salvo against his or her opponent to start an argument.
A fusillade is another term used to describe a large group of guns fired at the same target at the same time. In politics, any group of attacks from one person on another may be called a fusillade.
Example: In the last days of a presidential election, there is usually a daily fusillade of criticisms between the two remaining candidates.
When cannon balls, missiles or bombs are launched to hit a target at a great distance, their flight path must be calibrated exactly to go where it is supposed to go. The path that the bomb takes in the air, flying up in the air and back down to the ground, is called its trajectory. Events and processes can also have trajectories depending on their starting and ending points.
Example: In 2012, many people thought Mitt Romney was on the trajectory to win the presidential election. However, he was not able to win after all.
bang for the buck
The phrase bang for the buck literally means to have a loud explosion for money. Metaphorically, its origins lie in the desire of American politicians in the 1950s and 1960s to get more military force from the weapons they were currently paying for. In common terms today, to get a bang for a buck indicates that a person got a good deal buying something, or at least got the value for the money.
Example: In 2011, President Obama tried to get Congress to pass a bill giving many Americans new jobs and to reduce the high unemployment rates. However, critics complained that the plan was too expensive and did not give enough bang for the buck.
The phrase cannon fodder is a translation from a German term meaning food for the cannon, meaning that soldiers are often killed in large numbers in wars, as if they are simply blown up by the cannons. In modern terms, the phrase is still applied to cases where soldiers seem to be sacrificed for no reason on battlefields. More abstractly, the phrase cannon fodder can also indicate any large number of people who are treated unfairly in a process.
Example: When governments make huge budget cuts in education, some critics complain that our children are becoming cannon fodder for politicians.
It is always striking to me how many different political metaphors are based on terms of war, the implication being that Americans consider politics as comparable to military actions. I am not sure what this says about the American psyche, but it is clear that American politicians are very aggressive and treat their campaigns as military operations.
Next time: Launching Campaigns before Running.