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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles:Weaponry Wordings, Part 2

Words that originated with our ancestors' use of weapons are plentiful in today's English. Here we look at such commonplace phrases as "ramrod," "tightwad," and "bite the bullet," and how they have moved from being exclusively gun-related to being applicable in non-weapon-dependent arenas.


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Previously, I presented in this forum an examination of the use of words and phrases that originated from the field of firearms, but we barely scratched the surface. Here are a few more examples of terminology that conjured up visions of rifles, revolvers, cannons, and other similar weapons, in the minds of our ancestors.

A gun that discharges with such power that the shooter is thrown backwards is said to have a "kick." This may well be the origin of the phrase "to get a kick out of something" (sometimes worded, "to get a charge"). Though the idiomatic "kick" or "charge" is presumed to be positive (Spears, p. 211), it may be quite uncomfortable for the marksman (Funk, Heavens to Betsy). Often, the term "kick" refers to alcohol and its effect on a person (Spears, p. 211), as does the word "loaded." But it is possible that this, too, goes back to the use of firearms (as opposed to "fire water") and is derived from the concept of a person's weapon being loaded (though this would likely be a positive thing, demonstrating the shooter's preparedness, as opposed to the negative allusion of an inebriated person being "loaded"). This brings us to the phrase, "loaded for bear," meaning "ready for the hardest fight" (p. 227). Of course, most of us are not likely to come upon the literal bear, unlike our pioneer ancestors who would not consider advancing on a journey without being "loaded for bear" (or any other danger). Note: over time, this term also became synonymous with "drunk" (Hendrickson, p. 415), making one wonder about the crossover between drinking and weaponry.

While examining words that originated with the various "long guns" (as opposed to pistols) a quick look at "shotgun" is warranted. This weapon with a smooth bore, often containing two barrels, has the ability to shoot either a single slug or a cartridge containing a quantity of lead shot (Glazier, p. 497) that scatters when fired, potentially causing extensive damage (hence the alternate term: "scattergun") (Drake, p. 273). A favorite of hunters, this weapon has been adapted to a number of different fields: business ("a shotgun approach," meaning all-inclusive, representative of the scattering of the lead shot), drug world (blowing - "shotgunning" - a puff of marijuana into someone else's mouth) (Spears, p. 335), and football (a particular play requiring specific formation so that the ball is "shotgunned" to the quarterback) (Green, p. 492). But probably most widely recognized is the phrase "ride shotgun," meaning to sit next to the driver in the front seat of an automobile. When a child yells, "Shotgun!" to claim this privilege, it is most likely that he/she is unaware that it originated with the stagecoach guard, sitting alongside the driver, holding a shotgun as protection against thieves (Hendrickson, pp. 572-573). One hopes today that the person sitting next to the driver in the car that passes on the freeway does not hold a shotgun in his/her lap! (Though where this writer is in California, that is not always a sure bet.)

Another phrase that employs reference to a firearm is "under the gun"; when we are in this position, it means we have a limited time to get a task completed. It is rare that a person who is under the gun to complete his appointed assignment has a literal gun pointed at him/her, with the threat of death if the goal is not reached in the prescribed amount of time; however, if the task is something that provides our livelihood (e.g., a project at work) or takes place during particularly imminent conditions (e.g., boarding up a home in preparation for a hurricane), the eventual consequence of not completing the work in time might mean disaster and it may well seem as bad as being shot if we do not finish quickly (Moreland).

Part of the loading process of a front-loading weapon involves pushing the ball or bullet into the barrel with long, straight rod (usually kept with the musket by being attached to the barrel when not in use). This "ramrod" has evolved into a verb: "to force through, push forward vigorously" (Barnhart, p. 884). Of course, its shape has also given rise to the descriptive term, "straight as a ramrod," meaning both "erect" and "honest" (Drake, p. 120).

In the loading process, those who were especially frugal would wrap their ball (bullet) in a cloth so that it fit tightly in the barrel. This would enable the shooter to get by with less gunpowder, giving us the term "tightwad," meaning "a person who is particularly cheap" (Drake, p. 306). Both Hendrickson and Barnhart disagree with this origin, however, stating that it refers, instead, to a person who has his/her money rolled up tightly (Hendrickson, p. 670; Barnhart, p. 1142). In checking the works of other etymologists, I have found none who ventured even a suggestion for this term; Drake dates the word usage as earlier than Hendrickson's reference, but that does not necessarily give the former's origin more credence.

While on the subject of ammunition, we can see how "ballot" evolved from "bullet" and came to mean "the listing of candidates or issues from which we choose" in an election (Glazier, p. 312). The choosing process is called "casting a ballot" and we put our personal list of choices into the "ballot box" (Barnhart, p. 73). Originally, the "ballot" was a ball, or "bullet," of white metal or stone; it was dropped into the container assigned to a particular candidate. If the voter disapproved of the person, a black ball was inserted instead, leading to the term "blackballed," meaning "excluded" (American Heritage, pp. 18-19). The term for both the shooter's "bullet" and the voter's "ballot" come from the French word boulette, meaning "small ball" (Funk, Word Origins, p. 205).

When a person needs to face an event that is expected to be particularly painful (literally or figuratively), he/she is told to "bite the bullet." This phrase also has its origin in ammunition: during surgeries, before anesthetics were invented or when they simply were not available, the patient would bite down on something to keep from screaming, ideally distracting him/her from the task being performed (and probably making it easier for the surgeon to focus on the operation). Often something softer than a bullet would be employed (e.g., a stick); this would seem preferable as, with significant teeth grinding on a bullet, even one made of malleable lead (Moreland), it is likely the patient would require dental work following the surgery!

While not exactly being under the gun to complete this article for the publication in which you have found it, I have attempted to shotgun it to you to help provide some insight into our ancestors' lives in which firearms were part of the necessary equipment when starting life in a new land. Perhaps you got a kick out of learning the origin of some of these common terms: now you are loaded with ammunition for the next trivia discussion in which you find yourself. As genealogists, we see the need to approach our research in ramrod fashion, avoid being tightwads when it comes for paying for copies and microfilm rentals, and bite the bullet to afford whatever resources are needed. Do not blackball any of your ancestors before discovering all the data you can. Where would our language be if our forefathers did not keep and bear arms? From this expedition into etymology, one might surmise that the violence of the past has given us a wealth of language that lives on, in spite of the fact that many reading this have never even held a gun.


American Heritage Dictionaries (Eds.). Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004.

Barnhart, R. K. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology: The Origins and Development of over 25,000 English Words. New York: Chambers Harrap Pub., Ltd., 2003.

Drake, P. What Did They Mean by That? A Dictionary of Historical and Genealogical Terms Old and New. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, Inc., 2003.

Funk, C. E. Heavens to Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings: How More Than 400 Colorful & Familiar Expressions Originated and Developed. New York: Harper & Row, 1955, 1986.

Funk, W. Word Origins and their Romantic Stories. New York: Bell Pub. Co., 1978.

Glazier, S. Word Menu. New York: Random House, 1998.

Green, J. Dictionary of jargon. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Inc., 1987.

Hendrickson, R. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & Expanded Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Moreland, C. Origin of Phrases. Retrieved from, 1998.

Spears, R. A. NTC's Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions. Chicago: National Textbook Co., 1990.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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