Smoking gun: origins of the idiom

 

 

In the past few weeks, there has been much reference to ‘smoking gun’. And if you are South African you will know exactly what I am talking about. If not, I hope you will find the discussion interesting nonetheless.

Merriam Webster defines smoking gun as “something that serves as conclusive evidence or proof (as of a crime or scientific theory)

The Urban Dictionary offers: “it means the endpoint or last source of hard, solid evidence involved in a case or investigation and the British dictionary simple states: it is “information that proves who committed a crime”.

And, the Urban Dictionary,  using it in a sentence says: the tape recordings (substitute emails for the 21st century) provided prosecutors with the smoking gun they needed to prove he’d been involved in the conspiracy.

I love the expression smoking gun. Like other idioms, it has a magnificent visual quality. I can picture a pair of huge saloon doors swinging as the swashbuckling sheriff storms through in a torrid rage only to find the smoking gun and no human in sight. I can just about hear the signature tune of Bonanza as the image comes to mind.

But the idiom has less auspicious (or more, depending on how you see it) origins.

According to a forum on englishstackexchange.com: “The first instance that Google Books finds of ‘smoking gun’ in the sense of “irrefutable proof of guilt” appears in the context of the Watergate scandal of 1973–1974. The phrase “a smoking gun” or “the smoking gun” appears at least six times in Facts on File, Editorials on File, volume 5, part 2 (for the year 1974). And the earliest of these appears in an editorial from the [Cleveland, Ohio] Plain Dealer, (July 11, 1974).f”

English for students.com elaborates: “This phrase draws on the assumption, a staple of detective fiction, that the person found with a recently fired gun must be the guilty party.

“The use of the phrase in the late 20th century was particularly associated with the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s involving the US President Richard Nixon. When one of the Watergate tapes revealed Nixon’s wish to limit the FBI’s role in the investigation, Barber B. Conable famously commented: I guess we have found the smoking pistol, haven’t we?”

Many experts agree that the Nixon controversy was one of the earliest uses of ‘smoking gun’ but predating Google Books, other sources go as far back as the 18th century as a record of the idioms early usage.

In other research, I learnt that ‘smoking gun’ is considered more convincing as incontrovertable evidence than ‘blood on your hands’ because the former demonstrates recent usage, while the latter could occur by touching the victim after death, which is not as conclusive as the smoking gun.

I’m not sure I agree, (unless the smoking gun is in the perpetrator’s hands) but there you have it.
Comments welcome.