Lock, Stock and Peril

By Rob Kyff

October 2, 2019 3 min read

— Answering a Loaded Question: President Donald Trump's recent description of the U.S. military as "locked and loaded" triggered my curiosity about the origin of this phrase.

This American term, which first appeared during the late 1700s, originally referred to a flintlock rifle. Because its hammer had to be locked first to prevent an accidental discharge while loading ammunition, a ready-to-fire flintlock was said to be "locked and loaded."

Since then, the phrase has dovetailed nicely with the mechanisms of newer weapons. A 1940 U.S. War Department training manual for the M1 rifle directed instructors to command "lock and load," meaning that soldiers should lock the safety on the gun before loading it. It can also refer to preparing a weapon for firing by first locking the bolt (or locking the magazine into the gun) and then loading the ammunition.

The phrase got a big boost in 1949 when John Wayne's character used it three times in the film "Sands of Iwo Jima," twice in a literal sense during combat scenes and once metaphorically. When Wayne's character is offered a drink, he replies, "Lock and load." Presumably, he wants a straight shot.

— Conscious Uncoupling: I was reading Pete Buttigieg's memoir "Shortest Way Home" (a great read, by the way) when I came across this sentence: "A couple years ago the owner knocked out a wall and doubled the size of the cafe."

I'm used to hearing people drop the "of" before "couple" in casual conversation, e.g., "See you in a couple days," but the "of"-less "couple" now seems to be popping up regularly in edited prose, e.g., "The Nuggets have a couple options" (Denver Post, Oct. 22, 2018).

Golly! I suppose dropping "of" conveys a folksy tone (perhaps Buttigieg's intent), but usage expert Bryan Garner categorizes this elision as a "low casualism ... still avoided in careful usage." A-yup!

— Pronounced Disagreements: Given the intensity of political conflict these days, it's probably not surprising that we're also clashing over how to pronounce words to describe discord. Should "divisive" be pronounced "di-VY-sive" (rhymes with "incisive") or "di-VIS-iv" (rhymes with "dismissive")? Should "controversial" have four syllables ("kahn-truh-VUR-shul") or five ("kahn-truh-VUR-see-ul")?

I recommend "di-VY-sive" and "kahn-truh-VUR-shul." To my ear, the alternative renderings seem affected and British-y. In this case, we Americans should make a verbal Brexit. Call it "Lexit."

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay

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