Monday, January 23, 2012

Words Mean Things - Part 1

When it comes to weapons in general and firearms in particular, we live in the linguistic Wild West.  Everybody seems to be packing their own connotations.  And they aren't afraid to use them, regardless of whether or not they go off half cocked, or the damage they inflict on the innocent. 

That (very) little bit of punnery aside, when it comes to guns, definition and meaning are often trashed in favor of fabricated "technomotional" terminology that appeals viscerally but is vague enough in meaning so as to allow the application of any denotation of convenience.  Of all the linguistic propaganda that has attached itself to firearms in the last twenty-five years, my favorite phrase has to be "semi-automatic assault weapon."   It's completely devoid of meaning, but wielded like a mace by the ignorant, those feigning knowledge and those with an agenda.

Here's a typical usage, courtesy of the New York Daily News:

The latest NYPD gun buyback event turned up firearms for nearly every type of gunslinger - even those who want to blast their victims into swiss cheese.

The buyback, held Saturday in Brooklyn, netted 71 guns, including a Tec-9 semi-automatic assault weapon - the kind of heavy-duty piece that would make Tony Montana smile.

Not only was the gun fully loaded when it was turned in for cash, it was also packed with hollow-point bullets - the ammo of choice for hitmen because they are designed to make the emergency room doctor unnecessary.
You can view the original article from June 26, 2011 HERE.

Now, let's put aside the big, flashing, neon sign that says "I don't know what I'm talking about with respect to hollow points, but boy, does it make good copy!" and focus on the "semi-automatic assault weapon" issue.  Let's start with the fact that the design and manufacture of firearms is very much a technical discipline that involves engineering, physics, chemistry and a host of other sciences.  As with any other engineering discipline, there are technical terms of art that allow all the stakeholders (engineers, managers, marketers, consumers, users, sponsors, ec.) to communicate effectively.  For example, in the aerospace engineering world, the word chord refers to "The dimension of a wing parallel to the direction of motion."  If, for one reason or another, a group was to start using the phrase "flight-perpendicular chordal construction," not only would the phrase be self-contradictory and meaningless, the word chord would cease to be useful in terms of consistently conveying an idea or concept.

This is exactly what's happened with the phrase "semi-automatic assault weapon."  It's a self contradictory collection of words that appeal emotionally, and, to the uneducated, sound good, but that lacks any useful semantic content.  In other words, it's techno-babble, and means precisely...nothing.

Parsing the phrase is a useful exercise in understanding its paralyzing degree of imprecision.  "Semi-automatic" refers to any firearm that harnesses the energy of the fired cartridge to extract the empty case from the chamber, eject the case from the gun, cycle the firing mechanism and load a fresh cartridge into the chamber one time for each pull of the trigger.  Firearms that do this have been around for about 120 years, and they come in all shapes, sizes and types, from pistols to rifles to shotguns. 

The use  of the word "assault" is meant to conjure images of angular lethality in steel, wood and plastic as embodied by the current standard arm of the world's infantry, the assault rifle.  However, the use of the word "assault" in firearms nomenclature has very precise technical and operational meaning.

The MP44 - the world's first assault rifle

Let's go back to September 1943.  The tide of the Second World War has turned, and on the Eastern Front, the German Army has suffered tremendous losses.  As a result, the ratio of its combat troops to those of the Red Army was steadily decreasing.  To redress the imbalance, the Germans fielded a weapon which would, by augmenting an individual soldier's firepower, make up for the Red Army's manpower advantages.  The weapon was the Maschinenpistole 43 or "Submachine Gun, Model of 1943."  It was to become, after some bureaucratic wrangling, the Sturmgewehr 44, or "Assault Rifle, Model of 1944."

The new assault rifle had three key characteristics, all of which it shares with modern weapons of the type.  Specifically:
  1. It uses a cartridge that is in between pistol cartridges and traditional, full size rifle cartridges in power.  This type of cartridge is called an "intermediate cartridge";
  2. It is capable of either semi-automatic fire (one round per pull of the trigger) or fully automatic fire (e.g., like a machine gun); and
  3. It can be fired either from the shoulder or the hip.
Take away any one of these and you don't have an assault rifle.  In the case of the Daily News article, the firearm noted, the Intratec TEC-9, had NONE of these three characteristics.  (It was, in fact, a rather clunky and mundane 9x19mm semi-automatic pistol with a poor reputation for accuracy and reliability and less "power" than a snub-nosed .357 Magnum revolver.  Hardly "heavy duty.")

The original semi-automatic assault weapon
If we remove the context of firearms nomenclature from the discussion things get, if possible, even more confusing.    "Assault," according to Merriam-Webster, is a "violent physical or verbal attack."  Put that together with "weapon" and it means just about ANYTHING that can be used to conduct said violent physical attack.  It gets a bit murky here; after all, isn't the use of ANY weapon an "assault?"  Therefore, isn't "assault weapon" a bit on the redundant side, right up there with "frozen ice," or "burning fire?"

I supposed that if we were to liberally construe the phrase  "semi-automatic" and add it to the mix, it would mean something that could be used repeatedly to inflict a discrete element of a violent physical attack.  This sounds like nothing so much as bat. 

Actually, just about anything that can be used repeatedly to batter, beat, stab, thrash, maul, beat, puncture or shoot could be considered a semi-automatic assault weapon. 

(Remember the wooden spoon mom used to maintain discipline in the house?  Uh oh!  Semi-automatic assault weapon!)

The broad applicability of the term is an indicator of its gross imprecision and thus, utter uselessness to those who rely on the precise meaning of words to accurately convey ideas, images, stories and concepts. 

In sum, we have weapons.  We have assault rifles.  We have semi-automatic rifles.  We even have semi-automatic pistols.  What we do NOT have are "semi-automatic assault weapons." 

Words are powerful.  Words mean things.  Use them properly and wisely.


  1. My current favorite semi-automatic assault weapon consists of the pieces of erasers flicked from my hyper middle school students' hands during Saturday School. Oh no! I guess I should clarify. The weapon is the student's finger. Definitely semi-automatic (or automatic after a Monster drink or two--it twitches of its own accord). The ammo consists of the eraser bits. And the assault... well... luckily it wasn't aimed at me this time. Kidding aside, this was an informative read. Thanks for clarifying the world of weaponry vocabulary. I, for one, will be more careful in my own writing.

  2. Thanks for the informative article, but particularly for writing it in layman's language. For me that is always dumbing down, which is exactly what it takes to correct misconceptions when it comes to things learned through generic public media. Guess I better go burn those wooden spoons. Bob and weave, Beth, bob and weave.

  3. Thanks, Adam! I'm a no-nothing weapons-wise, but all of this makes sense. Have you written to the paper? I'll save this post so I won't write something stoopid.

  4. No, I haven't written to the paper...for a couple of reasons. One, I don't think they would respond well; phrases like that sell papers. Two, the article in question was published six months ago, so they would probably find the information stale.

    If people are really interested, or if I get some other prompting, I can post some things about other Words Mean Things topics, or I can talk about some other firearms related misapprehensions, such as the truth about hollow point bullets.

    Just let me know!

    Thanks for reading!

  5. Thanks for finally clearing up what an assault weapon is. I've wondered for years what constituted an assault rifle. I guess I still don't know what it means in typical journalist-speak. When I worked as a journalist, I felt it was important to use words carefully. Maybe the new Associated Press Stylebook has an entry for this. :-)

    1. Hi Lucy!

      The issue, I think, is that "assault rifle" has a very specific technical meaning, whereas "assault weapon" has been generalized to mean "any firearm that has a vaguely military or tactical appearance, regardless of how it actually functions."

      Reminds me of looking at old car magazines from the 1970's. There were many ads for fiberglass bodies that could be mated to VW Bug chassis. You wound up with something that looked like a Ferrari, but performed like, well, a VW.

  6. It's true. The NYT won't care. One of the things my newspaper days taught me is that a reporter's first audience is Management and its expectations.

    I also know that reporters are expected to write intelligently about subjects after little or no time to research. What they say, even if they're winging it, gets into print, then that becomes The First Draft of History.

    I don't mean to "media bash" because the job draws idealists whom the System chews up and spits out.

    Uh oh, do I need more caffeine??

    1. I never would have suggested it if it were the NYT! I assume this is a much smaller paper. Sometimes smaller papers listen to people. But I had failed to notice how long ago the article was. It's amazing how many times our little local paper got my name and email address wrong.

  7. I emphatically agree with you Rhonda.

    Fortunately, for both my sanity and all concerned with this blog, I'm not terribly concerned with educating the media. What I hope to do is provide/be a resource for the entertainment industry in general and writers in particular. Truth, I believe, can win the day, even....and especially, if it is channeled through fiction.