Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Shot In The Dark

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 28, 2011

Very different from being in the dark, a shot in the dark means you’re taking a calculated but wild guess about something about which you know nothing or next-to-nothing about in the first place.

On November 17, 2010 the Independent Newspaper in the UK ran a story by Stephen Foley on the U.S. Federal Reserve whose mandate ensuring full employment in the U.S. be removed in order to focus solely on price stability.  Former Federal Reserve vice-chairman, Alan Blinder was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying:

The anti-Keynesian revival has been disheartening enough. But now the economic equivalent of the Flat Earth Society is turning its fury on Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve. It is not a shot in the dark, not a radical departure from conventional monetary policy, and certainly not a form of currency manipulation.

Back on July 16, 1960 readers of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix read a news story written by journalist Ned Powers entitled, “Four Canadian Records Fall.”  He wrote about a young athlete named Smith, a late starter from Weyburn, who made good with his final broad jump to upset the international campaigner, Jack Smyth of Winnipeg.

It could be hardly classed as a shot in the dark for young Smith, who best exemplified the steady rise of youth in Canada’s track and field program.  He bettered 22 feet on three occasions and had the least fouls among the entries.

On May 30, 1922 the New York Times reported on Senator Lodge, representing Massachusetts as well as Senate Leader at the time, and the troublesome word “if” that was eventually deleted from a Senate Tariff Bill.  Concerned about a possible Democratic filibuster against the bill, it took five hours before the troublesome word “if” was stricken from one of the clauses in the Senate Tariff Bill.  The story, was entitled quite simply, “A Tariff If.”  The news article read in part:

[Massachusetts Senator Lodge] admits that the fundamental conditions of tariff legislation today are entirely different from what they ever were before.  The “utterly distorted and dislocated” foreign exchanges make, he confesses, any given rate a duty little more today than a shot in the dark.  Still he would have no delay in passing a bill which, in the course of a few months, may be found to have included rates wholly unnecessary for protection and outrageously oppressive in their effect on prices.

On April 1, 1884 the Warsaw Daily Times carried a story that most definitely was not an April Fool’s joke.  The news article reported on an incident stemming from a game of cards at Cole’s Creek, Columbia county in Pennsylvania, the previous Sunday.  It would appear that Charles Davis, Charles Mills, James Royer and Henry Williams had entered a tavern and started up a poker game with amounts being wagered finally reaching $500 a side — a very tidy some back in 1884.   

As oftentimes is the case in these very emotional high stakes poker games, there was disagreement as to whether a particular player had cheated; in this case, Williams reached for the stakes when Royer claimed he had seen Davis cheat.  The money was knocked to the floor and a row ensued where revolvers were drawn and the barroom emptied. What was referred to back in the day as a “promiscuous firing” occurred and when all was said and done, all four were found lying on the floor, dead.  The headline to the detailed account of the incident was:

Shot In The Dark: Deadly Pistol Practice With The Lights Out

The double entendre was not lost on the readers of the Warsaw Daily Times in Letters to the Editor in subsequent newspaper editions.  While it has been claimed that George Bernard Shaw appears to have been the first person to use the phrase metaphorically, as evidenced by The Saturday Review of February 1895, to others it appears that the metaphorical use of the phrase “shot in the dark” was already a humourous jibe a decade before George Bernard Shaw‘s clever use of the phrase.

No doubt, the literal sense of the phrase hinting at the figurative sense of the phrase can be found in the New York World newspaper of February 15, 1870 that reported:

To level his weapon and fire was the work of a moment; but as both figures fled the shot seemed to have been wasted.  Upon examining the spot in the morning, however, the gentleman found a considerable quantity of blood upon the trampled grass, and traces of it for some distance from the house.  Soon after the sod of a graveyard near the house was found to have been disturbed as though in preparation for the removal of a body, and the neighbors resolved the attempted burglary into the wanderings of a couple of would-be “body-snatchers” whom the alarmed householder had frightened and grazed by his random shot.

The news story was aptly entitled:

A Shot In The Dark: Strange Solution Of A Family Mystery

Idiomation was able to find several published literal versions of the phrase in newspapers and books prior to 1870, however, none of them appeared to have the figurative sense implied or carefully crafted into the headline so as to create a double meaning to the phrase “shot in the dark.”

One such story is from the New Zealand Colonist edition of October 18, 1842 that related an anecdote about the Emperor, Napoleon and the Battle of Jena at Weimar.  The anecdote ends with:

The Emperor laughed, and to reconcile the poor fellow to himself, said, as he withdrew, “My brave lad, it was not your fault; for a random shot in the dark, yours was not amiss; it will soon be daylight; take a better aim, and I’ll provide for you.”

Idiomation is relieved to hear that the literal sense for the expression is much less in use nowadays than its figurative use of the expression.

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2 Responses to “Shot In The Dark”

  1. William said

    Funny the way Foley praised Keynes in his article. Keynes was such a disaster that even the hard left FDR got rid of him, dumped his principles and only then turned the economy around. It is the Keynes/Friedman economic model that is responsible for the current economic crisis. Simply put, they believe in total fiat currency, that is a paper money backed by nothing but the government’s ability to force people to use it and prevent anything else being used in its place. As part of this plan, privately owned gold was actually confiscated in the 1930’s so it could not be used in place of paper money.

    To make a long story short, the US had long been on a gold standard where the price of gold was set at $20 an ounce. This was pretty much the same rate set around the world, a price based on a given weight of gold. By the 1950’s, the US inflated the money supply by changing the value to $35 per ounce, making the dollar worth 1/35 an ounce of gold rather than 1/20. In the 1970’s, the Freidman crowd got the US completely off the gold standard. They expected the price of gold to plunged to at most $10 per ounce because they thought it was the dollar that propped up the price of gold. Instead, gold immediately shot up to over $100 dollar per ounce. To look at it another way, where the dollar had long been worth 1/20 of an ounce of gold, today it is worth 1/1,500 of an ounce.

    Now there certainly is a bubble in the price of gold but there was once before as well. In the 1950’s to 1970’s, even though there were fixed exchange rates and a kind of gold standard where only governments could redeem notes for actual gold, the US over inflated its currency, as did some other nations. The dollar was at that time the base currency which other currencies in Europe and Japan were based from. The more the dollar inflated, the more pressure there was for the other currencies to inflate. Most other nations at the time didn’t like that so they fought back by buying gold with the Eurodollars in European banks. The US had pumped $80 billion Eurodollars out there but only had $20 billion in gold reserves. This was quickly bought up by other nations tires of US inflationary policy. That was when Nixon went completely off the gold standard.

    Most people don’t know that also at this time there were several pushes for a global reserve currency, much like there is today. They were called the Bancor (Keynes idea), the unita or the pheonix, and other options. The idea was for a global reserve bank that would issue special fiat reserve notes with no backing and no check against inflation. This bank would give money to whatever nation it chose in whatever amount it chose, essentially allowing it to dictate global affairs. Of course, just like central banks have done in every country that has one, this will result in rampant inflation not limited to a single country or two at a time, but the entire global economy. Image Greece or Wiemar Germany across the whole planet at the same time.

    Mind you I’m not a gold bug, just that for a sound currency and fiscal sanity, the currency has to be protected against inflation and government has thus far miserably failed to do so.

    • Thanks for adding so much more information to this entry, William.

      I’m a big believer that understanding more about the era in which a phrase is used helps to define what societ looked like at the time and how it impacts on today’s society.

      I’m quite certain that Idiomation’s readers will appreciate the extra information; I know I certainly did!

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