The Half-Life of Metaphors


Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The adjective weaponized — meaning “adapted for use as a weapon, equipped with weapons,” or more broadly, “militarized” dates only to 1956, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when the following was published in the journal International Security: “The fourth was an air burst of a boosted fission weapon using a U-235 core which obtained an energy yield of approximately 251 kt. It was probably a weaponized version of the 1953 boosted configuration reduced to a more easily deliverable size.”

The word poked along through the 1980s, then got a boost in the 1990s and early 2000s — in large part because of references to “weaponized” nuclear materials, and anthrax and other chemical and biological agents — as shown in this Google Ngram Viewer graph.

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Relative frequency of “weaponized” in the Google Books database.

Somewhere in there, the word took on a figurative meaning: one that, oddly, is not yet recognized in the OED,, or Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. The first use of metaphorical weaponized in The New York Times came in 1999, when a woman named Lynn Hawes was quoted describing a former officemate who ”weaponized her telephone for daily battle for much of the working day. … Acoustics were unusually excellent and I didn’t couldn’t miss a sigh or syllable.”

The Google Ngram tool tracks word frequency only through 2008. To get a sense of the popularity of the word since then, I turned to the ProQuest Newsstand database. Here’s the usage bar graph for weaponized, 1996 (seven uses) through 2017 (856 uses so far):

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Uses of “weaponized” in the ProQuest Newsstand database, 1996- 22 June 2017

Even in 2013, when weaponized made a giant leap forward, there were a good number of literal uses, many of them referring to drones. But since then the literal percentage has steadily dropped, while total use of the word has gone steadily upward, with 2017 on pace to roughly double the previous record high of 2016. At this particular moment, weaponized seems ubiquitous. From the beginning of June 2017 through the 22nd of the month, ProQuest yields 118 hits for the word, almost all of of them figurative. The most recent came in a Washington Post blog about the film Nobody Speak, which, the blogger remarked, is “an argument that there is one animating force behind all of our current battles over press freedom  and against allowing reflexes of disgust or outrage to be weaponized by the wealthy individuals who want to control how they are covered.”

Going in reverse order, the other things said to be weaponized over the course of a week were:

  • “Epithets such as the Asian band’s name [The Slants], [Daniel Snyder's] football club’s moniker [the Washington Redskins], and certainly the most infamous verbal insult of all — that used for black people.” Washington Post, June 21
  • “Cheap glitter” (“weaponized with dried hair spray”). Review of TV series about women’s wrestling, Washington Post, June 21.
  • Pictures of a character’s children posted to Facebook. Review of the novel The Changeling in New York Times, June 21.
  • The band name The Slants, again. (“reclaiming a weaponized term”), New York Times, June 20.
  • The internet. Fort Wayne (Indiana) Journal-GazetteJune 20.
  • Information. Sen. Mark Warner, interviewed on MSNBC, June 20.
  • Bill Cosby’s work. (“In his trial, he weaponized it.”) New York Times, June 19.
  • Uncertainty. Asharq Alawsat, June 17.
  • “The freedom of the Net.” Kenneth Wollack, president of National Democratic Institute, quoted by Targeted News Service, June 16.
  • The golfer Cameron Champ. Gannett News Service, June 16.
  • A computer-hacking tool. Washington Post, June 15.
  • The Fox News slogan “Fair & Balanced.” (It was “weaponized by critics such as Jon Stewart.”) Newsday, June 15.
  • A band’s “biker-bar blues rock.” Hartford Courant, June 15.

Note that precisely half of the 14 hits comes from The New York Times or The Washington Post. I take that as indicating that the usage is peaking among the hipper members of the chattering class. What will happen to it in the years ahead?

To answer the question, consider a passage from Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (1946):

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.”

The striking thing about that list is at least half of the “worn-out” metaphors — clichés, in other words — are still very much around, having progressed to the (benign, to Orwell) category of “dead.” Take Achilles’ heel. Samuel Taylor Coleridge apparently came up with the metaphor in 1810, when he referred to “Ireland, that vulnerable heel of the British Achilles!” Remarkably, the first person to use the now-familiar form, according to the OED, was Coleridge’s son David Hartley Coleridge, who wrote in 1840, “Ultra-royalism is the Achilles-heel of the Church of England.”

Look at the Google Ngram Viewer graph for the use of Achilles’ heel:
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It just keeps growing and growing. Modern-day metaphors, by contrast, get invented, picked up, overused, and then discarded in a few years. What moderately mindful writer today could write of something (other than a drug-taking athlete) being “on steroids,” or of X being “the mother of all” Ys?

I predict, therefore, that the next few years will be a hotbed of weaponized uses, but that we’ll then see its swan song. Before long, pretty much the only things described as weaponized will be weapons.

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