Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Turning the Gun on Yourself, Revisited

Posted by Neal on March 10, 2010

The top headline on the front page of The Columbus Dispatch today was “Janitor’s desperation turns deadly at OSU”. The subhead read: “Nathaniel Brown lashed out by killing his boss, Larry Wallington, and wounding supervisor Henry Butler Jr. before killing himself”.

“Before killing himself”? I thought. That’s not how they’re supposed to say it! However, I think they only worded it this way because of space constraints. Down in the text of the story, they used the customary phrase for events such as this one:

Early yesterday, Brown walked into the Ohio State University building where he’d worked since October and killed his supervisor, shot another boss and then turned the gun on himself.

The Google News Archive didn’t exist when I wrote that earlier post. I took a look through it just now, and the earliest attestation of “turning the gun on himself” or “turned the gun on himself” is this one from 1897:

John Nichols shot and fatally wounded Joseph Lewis today and then turned the gun on himself with fatal … (link)

What’s interesting is that in most of the examples I’ve looked at from near the turn of the 20th century, the writers go on to say what happened after the gun-turning. Even when the result was fatal and not just an injury, they’ll usually spell it out rather than assume the reader will draw the right conclusion. A few examples:

…the brother turned the gun on himself and sent a bullet through his brain. (link)

he suddenly halted, faced his pursuers and then turning the gun on himself fired the fatal shot. (link)
W. S. Crews, an old and prominent resident of this place shot, killed his wife, then turning the gun on himself, put a bullet into his own head and died an hour afterward. (link)

I’ll leave it as a research project for some inspired reader to go through the archives year by year to find out when turn the gun on [one]self started to convey the meaning of actually successfully committing suicide with a gun.

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3 Responses to “Turning the Gun on Yourself, Revisited”

  1. kip said

    the brother turned the gun on himself and sent a bullet through his brain.

    Now I’m dying to know: did he survive the bullet through the brain?? ;-)

  2. The Ridger said

    “Janitor’s desperation turns deadly at OSU”. The subhead read: “Nathaniel Brown lashed out by killing his boss, Larry Wallington, and wounding supervisor Henry Butler Jr. before killing himself”.

    What’s with the weird comma use? My first thought was that his boss and Larry Wallington were different people, then the ‘and wounding’ made me revise that, and then the lack of commas around the supervisor’s name made me revise again…

  3. […] killing himself. (If we could read the original article, it probably said that the guy “turned the gun on himself“.) It’s at that third event that things break […]

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