semantic shift: "shrapnel"

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Tue Jan 19 00:28:59 UTC 2010

Not quite. A shrapnel shell, or "spherical case shot," was a hollow shell
filled with round balls that were dispersed when a burster charge blew the
shell apart. Shrapnel shells became obsolete during WWI when they were
replaced with the modern high-explosive fragmentation shell. With the new
weapon, the casing fragmented and the shards caused the casualties. The
high-explosive shells were easier and cheaper to manufacture, more reliable,
and carried a larger explosive charge, so they were more effective. By 1940
and WWII, the original shrapnel shells were long gone.

What we have here is a term for an obsolete technology being given new life
by being applied to the replacement technology. We still "dial" a phone
number and "cc" emails; the same thing happened with anti-personnel weapons.

So if you really want to get pedantic and technical, shrapnel hasn't existed
anywhere, other than museums, for nearly a century.

Next up: calling your rifle a "gun."

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Robin Hamilton
Sent: Monday, January 18, 2010 3:46 PM
Subject: Re: semantic shift: "shrapnel"

> Most changes in language come from sloppy usage, yes? Or is that too
> prescriptive a point of view? The word they want in those reports is
> "shards". Shrapnel comes from weaponry. Or at least it did... up until
> now...



Actually, it's worse than that -- the rot set in in 1940.  The correct
meaning of "shrapnel", as the OED points out, is: "1. A hollow projectile
[sic]containing bullets and a small bursting charge, which, when fired by
the time fuse, bursts the shell and scatters the bullets in a shower."

This perfectly correct usage persisted from 1806 until 1940, when the term
was quite illicitly extended from the shell itself to the fragments
contained in it or projected from it.

The subsequent shift to refer to scattered showers of destructive shards
produced by any explosion simply further extends this corruption of the
original usage.

Myself, I blame the Great Patriotic War -- language has been going downhill
ever since then.


The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list