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Gun talk time

By Terry Joseph
June 11, 2004

Particularly in these times, responsible parents cringe at offspring talking about guns and ammunition yet, through subliminal messaging, adults unwittingly and repeatedly pump these topics into the brains of our darling children.

Of course, the mere mention of "pump" action conjures up "shotgun" metaphors, innocently used in mauvais-langue to explain weddings arranged at peculiarly short notice, or alternatively, to describe inseparable buddies, who "ride" as stagecoach security guards did in the Wild, Wild West.

That, dear parent, is how easily the taboo topic may reach your children, not exclusively through cable television or bad company but everyday ole-talk, right at home. All it needs is an imprudent "trigger" (oops!).

This tacit endorsement of "gun-talk" is a surreptitious process transmitted through innocent use of clichéd catch phrases, the origins of which may have been obfuscated by time but derive from activities associated with shooting.

Beginning with deceptive slings and arrows: Cupid, the cherubic archer, invariably aimed at the heart. In David's confrontation with the giant Goliath, he too selected an equally vulnerable body part and in our time, genocidal military applications continue the practice of exposing our kids to a whole heap of shot.

Even during family moments, our language cheerfully embraces violent imagery. We term brevity "bullet-points", envy "big shots", avoid "loose cannon", see chance as "a shot in the dark" and, if eventually successful, "a lucky shot."

Defining moments in ball sports-the "perfect shot"-also doubles as a description for serene photographs of a placid lake at sunset. A hitherto calm person may suddenly go "ballistic". An alcoholic drink taken neat, once called "a shot", is now a "shooter".

We tell kids our nerves are "shot", the word versatile enough to also explain why the kitchen blender no longer works. It also describes the process by which the softest silk is woven. In fact, it seems to be all we talk about, whether in meaningful conversation or just "shooting" from the lip.

A current sales promotion for Gateway computers offers "more bang for the buck", a line traceable to American military seeking funding for deadly ICBMs during the Cold War, when Air Force officials argued this form of weaponry could do more damage to opponents than equivalent expenditure on aircraft carriers.

And "gun-talk" harks back to a time well before today's sophisticated armaments. Apparently harmless references to "flash in the pan", now taken to mean great promise that quickly disappoints after initial flourish, actually came from the handling of Flintlock muskets, which were fitted with small pans to hold the gunpowder fuse; a contraption that sometimes flared spontaneously.

The references slip into every conversational crevice. Telling kids to tidy their rooms or you'll throw out everything-"lock stock and barrel", inadvertently identifies the three primary components of firearms. The "lock" is an archaic term for what is now called the "action", the stock holds all parts together and the barrel is self-explanatory.

After centuries of listening to their elders, children must have been influenced by such frequent allusion to guns and ammunition. To debrief them requires a whole new approach to even casual at-home communication; deleting inappropriate words when in their presence.

Parents who are willing to go "the whole nine yards" must however understand this phrase implies non-stop shooting, most commonly associated with ordnance fitted on WWII Corsair fighter planes; representing the exact length of a belt of 50-calibre ammunition for the aircraft's machine guns. In a dogfight, if the gunner emptied his entire supply of bullets, he was said to have given the enemy "the whole nine yards."

Of course, he wouldn't use that many if the enemy was "a sitting duck", a popular term back in the pre-conservationist days, when hunters were not required to wait until poultry was airborne to take aim and fire.

Actually, hunters gave us quite a few of these sayings. Being "in the pink" didn't always connote good health but first spoke of scarlet coats worn by foxhunters, who described their dogs as "barking up the wrong tree", if the canines miscalculated the elevated hiding place of a fleeing fox.

If you were already up to speed on these examples, for heaven's sake, do not consider it "a feather in your cap". Again, in an earlier time, this was the agreed way of awarding a soldier who killed an enemy. The feather was then worn on his helmet with much the same pride as today's hero displays a chest full of medals.

The result of careless conversation is today's teenager, who now regards outlaws and military strongmen as role models. "Loose lips sink ships", another battle-oriented term, has returned to haunt us. We must therefore resolve to curb cavalier use of words that may invoke or reinforce the wrong messages.

So when talking to your kids, try to avoid these sneaky references to guns and ammunition, no matter how far fetched the link seems at first blush. To young and impressionable minds, it constitutes exciting stuff that will be stored and may later manifest as the very anti-social traits about which we currently complain.

Sure it will be difficult, but what about child-rearing isn't? Perhaps you may consider doing like so many of us did: Just "bite the bullet" and "give it your best shot."

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