The Grammarphobia Blog

A loaded question

Q: I recently came across this quote from the Mormon lawman Porter Rockwell: “I never shot at anybody, if I shoot they get shot! He’s still alive, ain’t he?” That got me to thinking. You shoot an arrow, not the bow, but you shoot a gun, not the bullet. A friend of mine says he shoots targets. I’m confused.

A: The verb “shoot” has a lot of flexibility. It can be used intransitively—that is, without a direct object. Example: “He likes to go into the woods and shoot.”

But “shoot” can also be used transitively—with a direct object. When we’re talking about weapons, the transitive verb “shoot” can mean to discharge, to let fly, or to hit.

Consequently, it can have a variety of objects. You can “shoot” (that is, discharge) a gun, bow, slingshot, or catapult. You can “shoot” (let fly) a bullet, arrow, spear, javelin, or similar projectile. And finally, you can “shoot” a target.

All of these senses of the verb are recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary and have been around for hundreds of years.

By the way, that last sense of the word—to “shoot” a target—implies that the target was hit. But “shoot at” means only to fire in a particular direction.

We’ll have something to say later about Orrin Porter Rockwell, a colorful and controversial Mormon figure from the Wild West.

But first let’s look at the life of “shoot,” a verb with an interesting history, and not just in weaponry.

Its ancestors were old Germanic words that meant to go swiftly or suddenly, to rush or fly—yes, like an arrow from a bow.

It was first recorded in Old English in the ninth century in reference to the shooting of arrows, according to citations in the OED.

But other Old English examples use the term in a wider sense that reflects its earlier Germanic roots—to dart swiftly from one place to another.

So at the root of the word is the sense of moving quickly, and this ancestry explains the many ways in which “shoot” is used today.

For example, meteors “shoot” across the night sky, rafters “shoot” the rapids, and a toboggan “shoots” down a slope. A racehorse “shoots” from the gate, then “shoots” ahead of the pack.

A golfer “shoots” a birdie,” while a basketball player “shoots” a basket. Grownups “shoot” pool or dice, and children “shoot” marbles. If the kids are growing fast, they’re said to “shoot” up.

Plants in spring send out new “shoots” (a noun usage). Rays of the sun “shoot” through the clouds, and on a more prosaic note, product sales “shoot” up.

An indiscreet person “shoots off” his mouth or “shoots” himself in the foot, while an ambitious colleague “shoots” for success.

To lock a door a night, we “shoot” a bolt into its fastening. And if we don’t look where we’re going, our feet “shoot” out from under us (after which we experience “shooting” pains).

With that, we’ve “shot our bolt.” In case you’re curious (even if you’re not), the “bolt” in this old proverb is a thousand-year-old word for a short, blunt arrow fired from a cross-bow.

In olden days, there was a similar expression, “a fool’s bolt is soon shot.” The lesson: conserve your ammunition.

In case any readers are wondering about that quote you mention, Porter Rockwell was, among other things, a gunfighter, a deputy US marshal, and a bodyguard to the Mormon leader Joseph Smith Jr.

Rockwell was arrested in St. Louis in March of 1843 in connection with an attempt to kill Lilburn Boggs, a former governor of Missouri, the year before. (In 1838, as governor, Boggs issued an executive order evicting Mormons from the state.)

A grand jury found that there wasn’t enough evidence for an indictment on the charge of attempted murder, but Rockwell was tried in December of 1843 for trying to escape.

He supposedly made his comments at that trial, where he was found guilty and sentenced to five minutes in jail, according to Enemy of the Saints, a biography of Boggs by Robert Nelson.

Check out our books about the English language