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

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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.


According to a forum on “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 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.

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  15. Amina A. Watson

    Reply to “smoking gun”: back in the day, guns used black powder to propel the bullet out the front of the barrel. A great deal of black smokey material was also released, hence if two people were holding guns, only recently-fired ones would smoke. This is not true of modern weapons, but this charming phrase persists. Civil War (US) were quite smokey locations, and the word “gunsmoke” also expresses this correlation. Thanks!