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The Bowie Knife, named for Alamo defender James Bowie, varies in design attesting to its popularity. (Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas)

ACCORDING TO THE Oxford English Dictionary, a weapon is any kind of instrument used to attack or overcome an en­e­my. The word was first re­corded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of the 10th century (where it appeared as waepna). Over millennia, clubs, rocks, and bows and arrows gave way to fire­arms, bombs, sophisticated poisons, infectious agents, gases, and radioactive devices.

The adjective weapons grade describes fissile materials of a quality to make nuclear weapons. Weapons of mass destruction, often abbreviated WMD, seems like a very modern term, but it was first recorded in 1937, when the archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, used it in referring to the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. It later came to refer to chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Because “weapons of mass destruction” sounded so fearsome, some media, among them the New York Times, preferred to call them unconventional weapons. Nevertheless, it be­came a household phrase in 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq following allegations that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed such weapons. (No WMDs were found.)

Of course knives, arrows, and guns were the principal weapons for hundreds of years. These gave us two similes with the same literal meaning. Straight as an arrow, referring to the line of an arrow’s path, dates from the Middle Ages. Used figuratively, it describes a person who is honest and straightforward. Straight as a ramrod alludes to the tool used to ram down the charge of a muzzleloading firearm. To ramrod means to force or drive something through, such as proposed legislation.

To snipe has long meant to shoot from a concealed position; the phrase was first recorded in 1782, but the practice undoubtedly is much older. The shooter is called a sniper. A few sources claim the term alludes to surreptitiously hunting snipe, a well-camouflaged game bird. The verb also is used figuratively in the sense of assaulting someone or something with sly criticism or rebukes, or making a carping attack; this usage dates from the late 1800s.

At least two eponyms come from weep­ons. One is shrapnel, for shell fragments. The word originally meant a hollow projectile—a shell—containing metal balls and a charge of powder along with a time fuze that triggered the explosion before the ball reached its target, releasing a shower of small projectiles. Named for its inventor, British general Henry Shrapnel (1761–1842), the shell was first used in the early 1800s by the British Army in Surinam and in the Napoleonic Wars. It has long since been abandoned in favor of more effective projectiles, but the term continues to be used for fragments from any high explosive, whether bomb, mine, or shell, as well as figuratively for small but damaging projectiles. In Australian and New Zealand slang, shrapnel means small change, a petty amount of money.

The bowie knife, a single-edged heavy knife used by hunters, campers, and other out­door enthusiasts, was named for Colonel James Bowie (1799–1836), a pioneer, adventurer, and soldier who died in Texas at the siege of the Alamo. It was designed either by Bowie or his brother, Rezin Pleasant Bowie, but the colonel popularized it. Supposedly he used the knife in a brawl in 1827 and killed at least one person with it. It was so admired that he had copies marketed under his name.

A far more recent weapons term that has become widespread is drone. This popular name for an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, presumably likens the aircraft to the male honeybee, which does no work other than impregnating the queen. The drone is a pilotless aircraft controlled by programmed onboard computers or guided remotely. The name was first recorded in 1946, but attempts to bomb the enemy using unmanned aircraft began during World War I. Early models were primitive remote-controlled planes and did not work very well.

Effective photoreconnaissance drones date from U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and were developed to reduce the number of pilots downed in hostile ground. Originally called remote piloted vehicles (RPVs), they began to be used successfully in 1964.

Since then, drones have proliferated. The military uses unarmed drones for surveillance, to hunt for underwater and land mines, and the like. In civilian life drones can track wildfires and hurricanes, follow road patrols, dust crops, and more.

An increasingly prominent weapon is the IED, or improvised explosive de­vice. The British Army invented the term in the 1970s to describe the IRA’s homemade bombs, but such devices were used in World War II and even earlier. An IED consists of an activator (switch), fuze, container, explosive, and battery. The container frequently is a household appliance, such as the pressure cooker used in the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, and holds a grenade or nails, ball bearings, BBs, or small rocks.

The device may be triggered using a cell phone, TV remote, garage-door opener, or similar gadget. In re­cent years roadside IEDs have caused thousands of injuries and deaths in Afghan­i­stan and Iraq and also have been implicated in domestic attacks, such as Oklahoma City in 1995.


A revised and greatly expanded edition of Christine Ammer’s book Fighting Words from War, Rebellion, and Other Combative Capers is now available as an e-book on Kindle.

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