When metaphors metamorphose

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.


  1. says

    I thought the “shot the wad” expression was an implication of cowardice: the soldier got so rattled in the heat of action that they forgot to ram a ball down the barrel. That happened a fair bit during the napoleonic wars and doubtless the civil war, too. There was one musket recovered from a napoleonic battlefield that had a barrel full of balls and no initial powder charge -- the soldier operating it was freaked out and lost track of what he was doing and just kept ramming more powder and balls down it trying to make it work.

  2. Mano Singham says

    That interpretation makes sense, that they shot the wad rather than the ball. That would imply confusion and panic and incompetence rather than cowardice, though, wouldn’t it?

  3. kestrel says

    Yeah, he’s old, but not quite *that* old…

    That’s pretty interesting though. I was reading about linguistic reconstruction and how this can be used to find out what life was like long ago. People who lived 20,000 years ago could not talk about “shooting wads from a gun” because guns did not exist then, so there would be no reason to talk about it… But if they had words for certain things, like “net”, that is a strong clue that back then they made nets. I find the history of language and how it changed fascinating.

  4. Bruce says

    Mano, your comment (#2) raises an interesting point about the meanings of other words. Specifically, if we take the words panic and cowardice to have different meanings (which I do), then what is a case of cowardice without panic? I am sure there are many cases of panic without cowardice. But is it bravery to stand one’s ground when there is no reason to panic? And of course, if cowardice is reprehensible, then presumably it is a case of making a wrong choice in a situation of free will. But I think of panic as a situation where one is emotionally overwhelmed, and a case could be made that a true panic is beyond the reach of free will choices.
    When a military person or anyone else faces a cause for panic and does so bravely, without cowardice, is that due to luck or training or bravery or free will or due to the biochemical level of panic effects on one brain being different from panic effects on the other brains in the situation?
    I don’t have any answers here. But my guess is that some soldiers who shoot improperly are acting out of cowardice, while others are acting out of panic but not cowardice. Then there are other soldiers who were just slow in loading and got the order to fire and fired their wad before they had time to put in the ball. These latter soldiers may have been just slow, and unwilling to disobey the order to fire, even knowing they were just shooting their wad, and would not be able to shoot a ball for a few more minutes, or the next term of Congress.

  5. Mobius says

    I believe the phrase referred to firing the musket after the powder and wad and been tamped down, but the ball had not yet been inserted. Therefore, “shot the wad” meant doing something before one was fully prepared.

  6. Storms says

    I think its comically sad to watch the Republicans after 8+ years of saying the can do it better, and finally having the chance; to come up so short of having a viable Healthcare plan. “Shot your wad” is what they’ve done more in the original civil-war era sense than the modern one.

  7. naturalcynic says

    .. then what is a case of cowardice without panic? Late 1960’s … the Donald … bone spur

  8. se habla espol says

    Here in Hatch’s home state, the ignorance of guns prevails, despite the enthusiasm for them.

    In a previous life, I had occasion to learn more than I ever wanted to about shotguns and their shells. One of the items I learned was that each shotgun shell has a wad, serving the same purpose as the wad in a muzzle-loader or an artillery piece.

  9. michael42 says

    With changes in the language, is there a phrase in use that can be said to end phone conversations? “Hang up” is rather archaic. It has been sometime since I physically hung up a phone on a cradle. As a big consumer of Science Fiction, I have read several suggestions , but I don’t see any of them catching on. Any thoughts?

  10. Mano Singham says


    I have no recommendations as such but I do increasingly hear people say things like “Well, I’ve got to go” or “Well, I’ll let you go” or “Talk to you soon”, all followed by “Bye”. I rarely hear “hang up”.

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