Violence Under Wraps (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on 2011/07/14


Feature Image - Baseball & Guns

Baseball is a game, yes. It is also a business. But what it most truly is, is disguised combat. For all its gentility, its almost leisurely pace, baseball is violence under wraps.

Willie Mays (unknown source)

Notwithstanding being British, I consider myself to have a keen appreciation for many things that, were it not for the United States of America, would not exist.  Jazz music, the separation of Church and State and Jack Daniel’s Whisky are American avenues of investigation that seem to especially demand an increasing quantity of my time.  If I were to lose one of these today, I anticipate that morris dancing, and other alternative British inventions, would struggle to fill the void.

However, there are two American activities that if you were to probe my understanding, you would, as they would say, be barking up the wrong tree.

Those two ventures are baseball and firearms.  And I don’t think I am alone in this European abstention.  In fact, many of our fair countries have laws excluding you from participation in one or both of these pastimes.

However, what I find very interesting is that despite both baseball and firearms remaining uniquely American pursuits, the metaphors that utilize them are abundant in British conversation.

How many of us have played baseball?  But how many of us have said, or heard said in conversation, that someone just wanted to ‘touch base’?

Similarly, how many of us have actually fired a gun?  But how many of us have shouted, ‘Shotgun!’ before getting into a car?

This isn’t an article about ‘Americanisms’, which in my view are often practical improvements to words whose etymology is now obscure or forgotten.  ‘Paper towels’ seems to adequately describe the item in question whereas ‘kitchen roll’ only tells you where it is and what it is spun around.   You know exactly what a ‘drugstore’ sells you, but what do you do at a ‘pharmacy’?  Among the British, I am probably in the minority on this issue, wanting my language to, above all, be understood.

But, I have become curious to determine the origin of metaphors I hear so frequently, but rarely understand.  While the above examples are alternative words that often utilize descriptions of the items in question, baseball and firearm metaphors describe familiar ideas in unfamiliar terms.  In this sense, you may suggest, they entire fail in their linguistic deployment as a metaphor.

But, to most Americans, these are very familiar ideas and make for poignant imagery.  However, gun metaphors have recently raised the concern of many when Sarah Palin’s ‘Take back the 20‘ campaign of March 2010 was linked to the shooting of Democrat Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords ten months later in January 2011.  As well as the crosshairs in the below image (one of them aimed straight at Giffords), Palin and her allies frequently used firearm imagery to evoke a proactive political response from their supporters.

It is difficult to determine if the idiotic campaign was in any way influential.  As with other situations like this, it may be a confusion of correlation with causation.  The same problem arises with debating the influence of violent computer games.  Do kids become more violent when they play computer games?  Or do violent kids chose to play those games?

Nevertheless, there was a value to this media exchange insofar as the consciousness of many was raised concerning their use of the English language.  American, and others, are prone to using violent metaphors to articulate what would otherwise be non-violent ideas.  To show how aware the American public now are of this type of speech, last week Barack Obama was criticized by his Republican rivals for the following comment:

The debt ceiling should not be something that is used as a gun against the heads of the American people to extract tax breaks for corporate jet owners (…)

Barack Obama speaking for ‘Twitter Town Hall‘ at the Whitehouse on July 6th 2011

Similarly, baseball metaphors can convey a latent competitiveness that most likely derives from our combative, violent past.

Baseball and soccer have Aztec antecedents. Football is a thinly disguised re-enactment of hunting; we played it before we were human. Lacrosse is an ancient Native American game, and hockey is related to it.

Sagan, Carl (1996) ‘Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark’ p 346

And then there is the bewildering use of baseball metaphors for sexual intimacy.  Although probably initially derived for the purposes of euphemism, it is difficult not to see the abhorrent and intrinsic competitive nature of these words.

So, I intend to compile a list words in common British speech that utilize metaphors from baseball and firearms.  I’ll put the list up in a few days, but I am interested to see which phrases or words others have encountered.  If you have heard an interesting use of a baseball or firearm term, please fill out the form below and i’ll include it in the list.

Posted in: Etymology