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Shoot oneself in the foot

Q From J Michael Mollohan: “Eric Partridge says that to shoot oneself in the foot dates from the 1980s and means a person has made a self-defeating, counter-productive blunder. I remember the expression much earlier. In the post-World War Two days it meant to take a self-inflicted, relatively minor wound in order to avoid the possibility of death or greater peril, essentially an act of cowardice. When and how did this change to the modern meaning?”

A In the sense of a minor self-inflicted injury for the reasons you give, it is certainly older. My erratic memory suggests it was a well-known tactic in the First World War, rather too well known to officers and medics even then to be easily carried off. I found a reference in a 1933 book, Death in the Woods and Other Stories by Sherwood Anderson. An American tells of his experiences as an aviator in the British Army in that war, in which he suffered a bad crash and was taken to hospital: “The fellow who had the bed next to mine had shot himself in the foot to avoid going into a battle. A lot of them did that, but why they picked on their own feet that way is beyond me. It’s a nasty place, full of small bones.” The technique has continued into recent times: hearings held in November 1969 into the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War were told that one soldier had “shot himself in the foot in order to be medivac-ed out of the area so that he would not have to participate in the slaughter.” It still happens on occasion.

As a literal expression describing an accidental injury it is earlier still, from the middle of the nineteenth century. I would guess that such accidents have been occurring ever since firearms became portable enough for men to be careless with them — what comes to mind here is the Wild West gunslinger who tries to be the first to draw but who in his haste fires his gun before it is clear of the holster, inevitably shooting himself in the foot. The first example that I can find, however, is a sad report in the Appleton Crescent newspaper of August 1857: “Mr. Darriel S. Leo, Consul to Basle, accidentally shot himself through the foot, four or five days ago, in a pistol gallery at Washington, and died on Sunday of lockjaw.” A search of US newspapers found 187 items between 1960 and 1965 reporting that a man had accidentally shot himself in the foot; it’s no doubt a common injury down to the present day (it’s difficult to search for, as most examples are now figurative).

I’m sure the expression shoot oneself in the foot derives from such accidents, usually the result of incompetence, and has led to our current meaning of making an embarrassing error of judgement or inadvertently making one’s own situation worse. That men did it deliberately as a way to avoid combat is only a side meaning.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first figurative example, from the US, is dated 1959. It’s in an extended metaphor in William White Howells’ Mankind in the Making: “Many a specialist has shot himself in the foot when he thought he was only cleaning a paragraph.” The OED’s next example is from Aviation Week in 1976: “Why we seem to insist on shooting ourself in the foot over this issue, I’ll never know.”

So the conversion to the modern figurative sense was in the air in the US from the end of the 1950s (and may indeed, as I suspect, be older). But it became common from the early 1980s and by 1986 had given rise to the shortened allusive description foot-shooting.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 12 Apr. 2008

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 12 April 2008.