The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Violence of Two Words

The ambiguities of "brickbat" and "potshot"


At the Assizes in Salisbury in 1631, a prisoner threw a brickbat at the judge, and it narrowly missed. The judicial response to this contempt of court was gruesome and can be described as judicial murder. What exactly did the prisoner do? The Shorter OED defines "brickbat" this way: "a piece of brick, esp. one used as a missile; fig. an uncomplimentary remark." (I recognize of course that looking into a twenty-first century dictionary does not do much to determine the usage of a seventeeth-century word, especially when as here the word was not even in English but in Law French. But I digress.)

As violent and harsh as the judicial response was, it still appears different based on how we resolve what might seem from our vantage point to be a verbal ambiguity. Was the prisoner executed for attempted murder? Or was the prisoner executed for an oral retort?

I thought of that ambiguity this morning when I was looking up the word potshot. It seemed like the right word for a sentence, but I wasn't certain, so I went checking. The Shorter OED gives three senses. The first was hunting for food (a shot for the pot), which meant one didn't have to follow the rules of the sport. The second is a random shot (and here "shot" is still in a literal sense, a shot with a firearm or perhaps a bow), "esp. unexpectedly or without giving any chance for self-defense." The third sense is "a piece of esp. random or opportunistic criticism." This third sense, I hasten to add, is how I was using the word.

It's interesting to think about how these three senses might have been related. We can speculate about the historical progression. It's easy to see how the usage in this second sense might develop out of the first: the first combines a positive (for food) with a negative (not according to rules or norms); in the second sense the particularity of the positive is falling away (random, not just for food) but the negative aspect is still there (not according to rules or norms, maybe softened now to conventions and expectations). And once the second sense is there, it's easy to see how you would get the third, metaphorical sense. The metaphor would be quite different if it was closely tied to sense one (i.e., if sense two had never developed and the jump had been from one to three).

What is the point? It's the importance of context. Nothing about the word brickbat tells you what the prisoner did in the summer of 1631 in Salisbury. Nothing about the word potshot tells you, in 2021, whether someone is using the word metaphorically of a critic or unmetaphorically of a sniper. (Context, context, context is a point on my mind, because today I am working on edits to The Mischief Rule.)

But let me push the point slightly further. If we have an account of two people who are, in 2021, going hunting, and the literary text is full of words that are connected to hunting, firearms, etc., and then the text says that one of them "took a potshot at their friend Bill," was the shot literal or metaphorical? I think the probability of it being a metaphorical shot is almost 100 per cent. For an American English text in 2021, unless it is written coyly (with the reader expected to think one thing is happening, perhaps until the denouement of the story, while really something else is happening), the burden would overwhelmingly be on the author to clarify that she means a literal potshot. The expectation that a potshot at a person will be metaphorical is very, very strong. And that is so without any regard to syntax. And without any regard for whether the text has a profusion of vocabulary that fit the more literal senses.

In other words, context matters, but (in this instance) what is needed as context is not the appearance or prevalence of words in a certain semantic field, or even a knowledge of what activity the characters are involved in. Instead I'm suggesting that for a human target of a potshot we have now almost a kind of clear statement rule, one that has developed without any sharp moment of promulgation. My last speculation: it may be that potshot seems slightly playful, not quite serious, and so we attach it to verbal aggression instead of physical aggression. Perhaps that is because of its rhyme (which might then be tied into shifting cultural perceptions of the significance of rhyme, given twentieth-century changes in poetic form). But that is now speculation on top of speculation.