By Jim Van Eldik
Like me, I’m sure you’re well aware of the many partisan volleys fired at gun metaphors by the media PC police in recent years. I don’t know about you, but without my well-stocked armory of gun metaphors, my supply of clichés has been reduced to near zero. Indeed, I fear my rating as a conversationalist has drastically declined. I sometimes sit mute, fearing that a metaphor might slip and I may shoot myself in the foot.
The reverberations of the effort to shout down gun metaphors are far-reaching. What with the chief focus of the PC war being the employment of the words “target” and “targeting” in political campaigns and elsewhere, my friends in the Twin Cities say the corporate chiefs of the Target retail chain are considering renaming their stores “Red Circle Around a Dot.”
The President himself is credited with launching this anti-metaphor campaign in a 2011 speech emphasizing the esoteric goal of reducing the hostile tone of political discourse. The liberal media quickly morphed the speech into a partisan strike directed at us weak-minded gun owners who they fear cannot differentiate between targeting someone for electoral defeat and targeting someone for homicide. The caliber of discourse has continued to deteriorate with some on the fringes suggesting that we of the shooting fraternity probably obsess about homicide all the time.
All of this got me thinking: am I thinking about homicide all the time? Even though I’m not aware of any homicidal thoughts rolling around in my head right this minute, they do pop in there now and then, especially when I’m jammed in traffic gridlock on the freeway. However, as soon as traffic starts moving again, my brain (so far) seems able to eject these violent thoughts. Why, I’m positively euphoric once the flow of cars starts speeding past like bullets from a runaway machine gun.
Nevertheless, I took it upon myself to check out the writings of various gun nuts in an attempt to quantify the case. On the surface, they seem to have no particular murderous inclinations or any hang-fire obsessions, other than placing their next shot inside the nine or ten ring on a piece of shooting-range target paper. (I should probably mention here that I’ve sat through numerous psychology courses presided over by some very high caliber professors, and at no time during my studies did any of them include the homicidal obsessions of most gun owners on their list of concerning human behaviors.) What I found in my extensive research of a blog by a guy called “Machine Gun Mike” is that the fixation of these firearm-loving folks seem more often to zero in on human reproductive activities than on murder. My conclusion is that the folks pushing the homicide theory are simply shooting blanks.
I am also concerned that there may be unintended cultural impacts of all this metaphor repression. If you eliminate all the gun metaphors from social and political discussions, what’s left? Not much more than what passes for polite conversation at a yawn-filled Sunday afternoon garden club meeting (although I have been told that deep-rooted personal animosities between horticulturists can occasionally cause these gatherings to misfire).
Then I got to thinking… surely not all gun metaphors are bad. There must be shining examples of good metaphors, why, lots of ‘em, scattered like birdshot throughout the nation’s great canon of literature. Perhaps it is possible to selectively refine the gun metaphor lexicon not only so the quality improves, but also such that usage becomes acceptable to the noble guardians of politically correctness. Thus shall our liberal opponents be pacified and the colorful gun metaphors we all know and love can regain their rightful place in the national dialog, killing two birds with one stone.
But so as not to go off half-cocked, let us first deal with just what a metaphor is so as not to be firing blindly into that good night. According to our friend Webster, it is “a figure of speech which makes an implied comparison between things which are not literally alike.” To restate, a metaphor is a poetic device that adds texture and depth to otherwise bland descriptive phrases. For example, if we say Adeline has short, dark, curved eyebrows, well, so what? But if we refer ourselves to the metaphors and similes.com website and look for suggested alternatives, we find we can just as well describe Adeline’s eyebrows as “dark curls of unlit gunpowder.” Much better!
To be sure we are fully locked and loaded in this endeavor, I believe it is also essential to deal with that unforgivable sin about which your high school English teacher kept warning you (and that you never understood): the dreaded “mixed metaphor.” To illustrate, let us reload our example of Adeline. Again, if we say, “Adeline’s eyebrows were curls of dark unlit gunpowder,” by itself the statement is fine. But if we then add, “which lay beneath a golden field of California flannelbush,” that would be a mixed metaphor. Indeed, regardless of political persuasion or disputes about whether I ought to be able to buy a CZ Scorpion Evo 3 S1 9mm 7.75 inch pistol in the sporting and outdoors section of Circle Around a Red Dot, I am sure we can all agree that it is very difficult to visualize a girl with gunpowder eyebrows and hair reminiscent of Fremontodendron californicum all at the same time.
Rather than jump the gun in an attempt to create our own better metaphors, I believe it would be wise to turn to the classics in order to see how the masters did it. Let’s look at a couple of instances of Mark Twain’s employment of the form as examples of how we of the straight shooting fraternity might properly phrase a good metaphor, thereby getting the most bang for our buck.
It is probable that many readers are already familiar with Twain’s most popular gun reference, e.g., “His face was as blank as a target after a militia shooting-match.” It is most eerie that this quote from more than one hundred years ago seems as if it could have been written this morning about any number of modern-day politicians. As good as it is, though, there are some that are even better. Let us now consider a Twain metaphor that flows as smoothly as cool black gunpowder running down the greased barrel of a Simon Kenton Kentucky rifle.
The context was Twain’s attempt to develop an understanding of Italian verbs. The humorist had been residing in Italy for a period of some months and had decided it was high time he developed better Italian language skills. He thought a good place to start was with the verbs. Twain’s initial selection was the verb “amare” or “to love” and he recruited his “facchino,” or house domestic servant and part-time veterinarian (yes, really), as his instructor.
It soon became obvious to Twain that developing proficiency was not an easy mark. Twain was “much disturbed to find [the verb] was over my size, it being chambered for fifty-seven rounds–fifty-seven ways of saying ‘I LOVE’ without reloading…” He then proceeded to ask for a simpler verb, “something more primitive to start with… some gentle old-fashioned flint-lock, smooth bore, double-barreled thing, calculated to cripple at two-hundred yards and kill at forty.”
Alas, it was not to be. According to Twain, all Italian verbs were of the same ilk, “all Gatlings… all the same caliber and delivery… fifty-seven to the volley [and] fatal at a mile and a half.”
I am sure we can all agree that these are truly poignant and timeless metaphors. If the allegories we use today were all of this caliber, the anti-gun PC folks could not help but be on our side – or at least love us for our brilliant imagery while looking down their noses at us.
So let us all bite the bullet and make a point to stick to our guns no matter who objects. We must fire off our best metaphors whenever we can, tighten the ranks, and continue to keep this great American word tradition ricocheting off the walls and hallways of our battle born republic.
A version of this article originally appeared in Muzzle Blasts Magazine.
Jim Van Eldik is a retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel and author of the Civil War book, “From the Flame of Battle to the Fiery Cross.”