Thursday, January 8, 2009

This is reference, may I help you?*

I look things up for a living. I find answers. I search for things online with databases and google and occasionally, I have been known to use actual dead tree resources, like atlases and dictionaries.**

If you stop to think about all the text that passes in front of my eyes as a librarian and then again here, during my hours blogging, it would be safe to assume that I love words. I love the weight of history in their etymologies, and all the subtlety that can lie within their definitions. A single word can be powerful but put it in combination with others, and it can have limitless potential. I learned how to read when I was 4 years old and haven't ever stopped - language is beautiful, a purely human miracle, and I've been in love with it a long time.

So you can imagine my dismay when I visited James R. Rummel's blog and read a story about a gun store clerk belittling a woman because she didn't know what he felt was the correct definition of the word "pistol." (apparently this particular counter jockey missed good manners day at retail school) It led me to wonder about the word's true definition and, of course, the urge for research was irresistible.

Now there are a lot of dictionaries available and I'm sure quite a few heated debates have been had over which is the "correct" one, and why. Words are flexible according to their common use - language is nothing if not fluid and everchanging - and you can compare and contrast definitions indefinitely but there comes a time when you have to commit to a resource because you want an answer.

And for that, I choose the good old O.E.D. - The Oxford English Dictionary - because it is regarded by many to be the definitive record of the English language. It has been the "last word on words" for over a century now, so it's good enough for me.

So I did a simple search, no librarian-fu necessary, and here is what I found:

______________________
pistol /pístl/ n. & v.

n.
1. a small hand-held firearm.
2. anything of a similar shape.

v.tr. (pistoled, pistoling or pistolled, pistolling)
shoot with a pistol.

- ORIGIN mid-16th century: from obsolete French pistole, from German Pistole, from Czech pit'ala, of which the original meaning was ‘whistle, fife,’ hence ‘a firearm’ because of the resemblance in shape of the barrel to a fife or pipe.
______________________

And there you have it. Don't make me shush you.



*this is how I answer the phone at work. I will, under no circumstances, give my name or wear my name tag. And despite having a dumbed-down sign hanging over my desk that says "Information," I will always say "reference" instead.

**people sometimes seem to trust a book more than a website.

20 comments:

Rustmeister said...

Yeah, I just recently learned that a revolver wasn't a pistol, to which I replied "They used to be."

stbaguley said...

So a revolver is more like a pan pipe? ;-)

Hunter said...

Ah, the OED.
I find myself sitting down at the UAS library and just leafing through it.
And I subscribe to the OED word-a-day.

mad saint jack said...

I think I remember seeing a picture of the original Colt patent that said: "Colt revolving pistol".

I can't find that image online, but this is close as I can get.

http://www.cw1861.com/chris154.jpg

I do try to correct people when they confuse the terms assault weapon, assault rifle, and machine gun. That is because I think most of the people who say the support an assault weapons ban think it is a ban of full-auto weapon. The gun banners rely on people's ignorance for their support.

Bruce said...

A revolver is a pistol, but a quadrilateral isn't necessarily a square.

New Jovian Thunderbolt said...

And just because the cat had kittens in the oven doesn't mean you get to call them biscuits!

tanksoldier said...

I think there is a trend towards referring to self-loading pistols as "pistols" as differentiated from revolvers.

I suspect this is due to the desire NOT to call self-loading pistols "automatic" pistols, what with the confusions this causes among the uneducated media and public. Also "self-loading pistol" or "detachable magazine pistol" are both awkward.

While rudeness can never be excused one has to realize that the meanings and usage of words change over time. This is much like the debate over ".45 LONG Colt". Historically speaking the it's inaccurate but it saves confusion today.

Sigivald said...

I believe part of the confusion (or belief that the narrower definition is "the right one") is that the US military evidently uses the terms in that manner.

(For example, FM 23-35 (1988 version, pdf here) distinguishes "pistol" and "revolver" in that manner, though I don't know that they do so currently... if only because I don't think there are any revolvers left.)

None of this excuses the attitude of the clerk, but it does help explain the origin of the (arguably erroneous) hard distinction; sensible folk admit that outside of the Army's jargon, "revolver" is a subset of "pistol".

kaveman said...

If you like etymology(which I do as well, but I like the origin of phrases more) try looking up the origin of the word "galaxy".

Then compare it to what we call our own.

Rick R said...

How about Brass Chuckers and Wheel Guns...

LIbertyClay said...

I etymology once. It was delicious.

:0P

SpeakerTweaker said...

"Don't make me shush you."

BWAAAAHAHAHAHA!



tweaker

James R. Rummel said...

Good post.

James

Lissa said...

Can I point my finger at your with my thumb cocked and make that a pistol? It's of a similar shape, after all . . .

tibby said...

Oh, very good! :-)

Edwardo said...

Technically the revolver is a revolving semi-automatic pistol. It fires once for each pull of the trigger. Yes? No? Discuss...

dr mac said...

Well written and informative.

Thanks.

Tam said...

Want to have fun? Get some gun nerds going on the term "Double Action Only". For maximum entertainment value, you will need at least one each of "Smith & Wesson Fanatic", "Orthodox Jeff Cooper-ite", and a "Glock Fanboy".

Good for hours, if not days, of entertainment...

Ride Fast said...

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DocRambo said...

Years ago, I was informed that the term pistol meant any handgun, and revolver meant just what it said; however, the automatic pistol does not mean it is a machine pistol, but that it feeds "automatically" from the magazine; believe it was in the original advertising, but cannot find any references now.