Utah Senator Orrin Hatch caused some eyebrows to be raised when he sent out a Tweet that said, “We’re not going back to healthcare. We’re in tax now. As far as I’m concerned, they shot their wad on healthcare and that’s the way it is.” It was the phrase “shot their wad” that caught people’s attention because that phrase is now associated with male sexual ejaculation and not something that one might expect a senator to use in public.
But as a staff member for Hatch was quick to point out, that metaphorical interpretation is a later development and the original phrase had a different concrete meaning dating back to the Civil War and related to the guns in use at that time, where a wad was “a plug of tow, cloth, etc., a disk of felt or cardboard, to retain the powder and shot in position in charging a gun or cartridge” and the word ‘shot’ referred to the actual shooting of the gun.
Since I have long been interested in how language evolves, I found this to be a fascinating example of that process. No doubt ‘shot the wad’ began to be used as a metaphor when people had a very concrete image of the real process on which it was based. But over time, metaphors take on a life of their own, untethered from their roots, especially if they become popular and widely used and the words used refer to things that are no longer commonly found and the original context is forgotten. So now people may think that the word ‘wad’ actually is a synonym for sperm and the concrete image that the phrase ‘shooting the wad’ evokes is no longer that of shooting a gun but of sexual ejaculation.
George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language said that this kind of transformation is more likely to occur with ‘dying metaphors’, that have become worn out because of overuse and are now used mechanically without a thought as to the original concrete image on which it was based.
A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g., iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.
The 83-year old Hatch used this incident for humor, implying that the reason he knows the original usage is because he is old enough to have been alive during the Civil War.