Beyond Grammar: Gun talk in America

There has to be a cultural change before the gun violence subsides, and that change is in our own hands in a way that legislation is not. Just as we are changing our culture by revising language regarding race and gender, we might revisit our use of gun language.

The first step is to increase our awareness of how often, and how romantically, we use military and gun terms. “Locked and loaded” has rumbled through our discourse in recent years. “..out of my cold, dead hands” has become a cultural meme, used for both serious and comic effect. Humor undermines fear and makes us feel better. The challenge is to use that meme in such a way that even an NRA member would laugh, instead of using it to impugn her.

Cinching a corset of political correctness around gun and military terms is not effective in bringing about change; it just pits one side against the other. We need a little poetry here.

Soft consciousness of militaristic language and making personal changes can result in cultural change. People lament that there is no silver bullet for stopping gun violence. You should not negotiate with a gun at your head. Electoral candidates target their opponents, and authors target their ideal reader. Union negotiators and rebellious legislators stick to their guns, advocacy groups take aim and the White House, or your boss, is sometimes under fire. Is there another way to express these ideas? Perhaps electoral candidates and authors could focus instead of aiming or targeting. Could the White House be under a cloud, or even in deep shit, instead of  under fire? In the absence of a brilliant new idiomatic creation, use a verb, “So-and-so is agitating against the White House,” instead of the passive, “The White House is under fire” or “under attack.” A French king was criticized by the queen for being profane when he said, “Sacre Dieu!” [Holy God!] so he changed to “Sacre bleu!” [Holy blue”] and it stuck. If a language can find something to effectively rhyme with God, it can easily handle guns .

By the way, other languages are not bulging with military terms to the same extent as American English; even the many dialects of English in the world are less militaristic.

If you believe that the way we speak affects the way we think, change the way you speak.