Category: write better English

Is there a smoking gun in the Zondo Commission? idiom origin

 

Smoking gun as only evidence of crime

 

While the Zondo Commission takes a deep dive into state capture, many South Africans may hope it finds the “smoking gun”. And if you are South African you will know exactly what I am talking about. If not,  you probably have your own corporate/political scandal to apply it to.

Let’s look at how “smoking gun” has evolved.

Merriam Webster describes smoking gun as “something that serves as conclusive evidence or proof (as of a crime or scientific theory)

The Urban Dictionary offers: “it means the endpoint or last source of hard, solid evidence involved in a case or investigation and the British dictionary simple states: it is “information that proves who committed a crime”.

And, the Urban Dictionary,  using it in a sentence says: the tape recordings (substitute emails for the 21st century) provided prosecutors with the smoking gun they needed to prove he’d been involved in the conspiracy.

Scene in a saloon 

I love the expression smoking gun. Like other idioms, it has a magnificent visual quality. I can picture a pair of huge saloon doors swinging as the swashbuckling sheriff storms through in a torrid rage only to find the smoking gun and no human in sight. I can just about hear the signature tune of Bonanza as the image comes to mind.

But the idiom has less auspicious (or more, depending on how you see it) origins.

Watergate

According to a forum on englishstackexchange.com: “The first instance that Google Books finds of ‘smoking gun’ in the sense of “irrefutable proof of guilt” appears in the context of the Watergate scandal of 1973–1974.

The phrase “a smoking gun” or “the smoking gun” appears at least six times in Facts on File, Editorials on File, volume 5, part 2 (for the year 1974). And the earliest of these appears in an editorial from the [Cleveland, Ohio] Plain Dealer, (July 11, 1974).f”

Smoke signals

English for students.com elaborates: “This phrase draws on the assumption, a staple of detective fiction, that the person found with a recently fired gun must be the guilty party.

“The use of the phrase in the late 20th century was particularly associated with the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s involving the US President Richard Nixon. When one of the Watergate tapes revealed Nixon’s wish to limit the FBI’s role in the investigation, Barber B. Conable famously commented: I guess we have found the smoking pistol, haven’t we?”

Before Google

Many experts agree that the Nixon controversy was one of the earliest uses of ‘smoking gun’ but predating Google Books, other sources go as far back as the 18th century as a record of the idioms early usage.

In other research, I learnt that ‘smoking gun’ is considered more convincing as incontrovertible evidence than ‘blood on your hands’ because the former demonstrates recent usage, while the latter could occur by touching the victim after death, which is not as conclusive as the smoking gun.

I’m not sure I agree, (unless the smoking gun is in the perpetrator’s hands) but there you have it.
Comments welcome.

How to keep your powder dry in the 21st century. Idioms from the military

On the horns of a dilemma: origin of idioms

How to alternate the alternative: Grammar

pi by Christiann KeopkeAs with much of the English language the correct use of this pair of words has slipped into misuse, and in some very unfortunate circumstances, accepted as the norm, or worse correct.

Not my circus, not my monkeys. Idiom usage

Idioms from other languages
Are these your monkeys?

Not my circus. Not my monkeys. I did a double take. I was having coffee with my Irish friend Paul and he was throwing this phrase around throughout our conversation. He was clearly trying to make a point.

Black swan, a label for COVID-19

Black swan as a metaphor for unprecedented events

In much of my research for clients in the past couple of months I have often seen the term black swan. As I know swans to be white in most cases, I was intrigued by this phrase suddenly popping up all over the place.

The term black swan has come to be associated with COVID-19 and its various impacts.

On the shoulders of giants: idiom usage

Standing on shoulders of giantsAlthough English is widely spoken, it’s seldom spoken well. And nowhere is this more true than in the use of idioms. People who speak English as a first language are often tripped up by the idiomatic turn of phrase.

Smoke and mirrors: usage and origin

Smoke and mirrors is part of our language

Last Friday, I attended a virtual networking event which was held over a hugely impressive digital platform. This included tables of six, different floors and a plenary area. Wow. It was truly a landmark in cyberspace – if you’ll excuse the irony.

Introducing  us to the event, the host said, “There will be no smokes and mirrors.” Not only was this quote completely out of context it was also incorrectly stated. The correct expression is of course “smoke and mirrors”.

Letting the cat out of the bag: idiom origin

Yesterday on my walk as I approached the park I saw a massive canvas bag, filled to the brim with litter.

I hoped that it was a sign that the debris and been collected and responsibly discarded. However, this was not the case as the trail of rubbish still surrounded the park.

Kicking the can down the road: idiom usage and origin

Kick the can down the roadWhen I take my evening walk after about six blocks I reach the park and I walk around it. I can’t help noticing that the streets are strewn with litter. From KFC boxes to disposable face masks, singular socks, uneaten slap chips and a few empty Coke tins, there is just a big mess.

Veracity and voracity: use these words correctly

Is this voracity or veracity?
Voracious appetite

In the spell of untruths around COVID-19, today, we are going to have some fun exploring the difference between veracity and voracity.

These words if not heard correctly can be interchanged to disastrous effect.  The one has to do with truth, the other appetite.

Cat got your tongue? Origin of idioms

Cat got your tongue?
Cat got your tongue?

Sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night, my mouth feels like a snake has slept in it and left its blanket behind. My mouth gets that uncomfortable woolly feeling that only a good cup of tea can resolve.

Now, just imagine that the cat’s got your tongue. It’s climbed into your mouth, and with its claws yanked out your tongue to ferry away and eat somewhere as a delicacy.

Visual Aid

This creates a lively visual picture, vivid enough to have us believe that we cannot speak if the cat has our tongue.

“Cat got your tongue?” is an idiom that dates back to the 18th century and is asked of someone who is not responding. This is particularly so, for example when a child is asked, “Why have you not done your homework,” and there is silence. The adult would say, “What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?”

The most confident source on its origin comes from www.theidioms.com

Origins

“This phrase has an interesting origin. In the 18th century, the English Navy had the practice of whipping erring sailors with a whip which had multiple endings. This whip was nicknamed “the cat” because it commonly had nine endings. So, after receiving a beating, while the poor sailor lay in a corner sulking or not speaking, other sailors will walk up to him and tease, “Did the cat get your tongue?”, referring to the whip. As time went on, this became shortened to Cat got your tongue.

The expression “cat got your tongue” is always directed at someone else. You could never say in response to a question, “The cat’s got my tongue,” because by making this utterance you are making it clear that your tongue is well placed in your mouth and you are free to use it.

Take the log out of your eye and other idioms

On the horns of a dilemma: origin of idioms

From six yards to nine: how idioms originate

 

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