Q: I was listening to WNYC the other day when I heard Murray Weiss, an editor and investigative reporter, say the police fired “a fuselage of bullets” during the Sean Bell shooting. Dear me!
A: We think you heard incorrectly.
We listened to a podcast of Murray Weiss’s March 26 commentary on WNYC, in which he described the 2006 shooting of Sean Bell. What we heard Weiss say was “a fusillade of bullets,” not “a fuselage of bullets.”
So Weiss, who comments on crime at WNYC, quite properly used the word “fusillade” to describe a hail of bullets.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines “fusillade” this way: “1. A discharge from a number of firearms, fired simultaneously or in rapid succession. 2. A rapid outburst or barrage: a fusillade of insults.”
English adapted the word from the French verb fusiller (to shoot). A related English word is “fusilier,” an old term (like “musketeer”) for a soldier carrying a firearm.
But we’re glad you brought this up, because we’re always coming across the incorrect usage you thought you heard.
Either “fusillade” or “barrage” would be appropriate choices to describe heavy gunfire. But not “fuselage,” which means the body of an aircraft.
Yet many people—especially in speech, but sometimes in writing—conflate “fusillade” and “barrage” and come up with “fuselage.”
We even found “a fuselage of bullets” in a 2007 article in the Washington Post about a skirmish involving a Mexican drug smuggler and Border Patrol agents. (It was later corrected after complaints from readers.)
Crime writers, of both fiction and nonfiction, also need to use their dictionaries more often. Here are a few examples (we’re quoting only partial sentences):
“Kate ducked under a heavy fuselage of bullets” (from Lorenzo Carcaterra’s novel Midnight Angels, 2010).
“He was met not only by the cold winds whipping off the Hudson River but by a fuselage of bullets” (from Philip Carlo’s The Butcher: Anatomy of a Mafia Psychopath, 2009).
“A fuselage of bullets killed Donahue instantly” (from The Boston Mob Guide: Hit Men, Hoodlums and Hideouts, by Beverly Ford and Stephanie Schorow, 2011).
We suspect that spell-check programs could be to blame for some of the written usages. One more reminder that spell-checkers can’t read your mind (not as of this writing, anyway), or take context into account.
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