The current gun debate has brought an old, familiar bugaboo back into the limelight, and it’s one most of you have probably seen. It comes in the form of critics rising up and taking umbrage with commentators substituting the word “clip” for “magazine” when talking about weapons technology. I’ve lost count of the number of tweets, blog posts and articles which decry the error and seek to dismiss the arguments being made. This avenue of attack is based on the speaker or author’s failure to understand the fundamental mechanics of weaponry, leading to the assumption that the rest of their argument must therefore be specious.
The first thing to point out is that these critics are absolutely correct on the technical merits. A clip and a magazine are two different animals, and most younger gun buyers today – particularly civilian, sport shooters – are unlikely to have ever seen a clip. You can find a nice review of the difference between them here, but a shorter answer will suffice. A magazine feeds rounds into the chamber of the weapon, is generally spring loaded, and is part of the firing / reloading process for the gun. A clip traditionally held rounds in a set configuration, generally by the base, and facilitated loading into the magazine.
Unfortunately, over a long period of casual use, the two words have begun to merge. It’s an easy mistake to make. I’ve made it myself. Heck… so has Wayne LaPierre for that matter. That doesn’t make it right, but it falls into a pattern which has been plaguing logophiles for ages… the sad fact is that words evolve over time, often to their detriment. And when they are used incorrectly for a long enough period by enough people, the “new definition” takes root and it’s pretty much impossible to exterminate.
There are tons of examples to be found. One of my “favorite” (as in pet peeve) entries in the category is hoi polloi. The original meaning of the phrase was “the common people,” referring to the great unwashed masses. It was actually a derogatory term. But it’s a fancy sounding phrase, and confused writers began using it to refer to the upper crust, elite. That was done so often that modern reference works now actually refer to both as correct usage. The word was turned on its head.
Further fun – or tragic, depending on your point of view – examples abound. Did you know that “awful” originally meant, “‘full of awe’ i.e. something wonderful, delightful, amazing?” The word Manufacture was first used to reference things made by hand with artisan craftsmanship. Counterfeit was a compliment, meaning “a perfect copy” and a “punk” once meant a prostitute or harlot. Whether we like it or not, words evolve. And “clip” has slowly but surely begun muscling its way into the language as a casual alternate meaning for a magazine.
That doesn’t mean you’re wrong to try to correct people, but there’s a downside to it as well. When we fall back on sniping over technical tap dances out of the dictionary over differences in terminology which have little practical effect on the subject at hand, it seems to weaken the argument. There are so many stronger, valid criticisms to be made of the pitch being given by gun grabbers, and resorting to the, “nanny nanny boo boo, you don’t know what a magazine is” argument just makes it look as if the speaker has run out of valid objections. And please keep in mind that I don’t say this from a position of somebody defending David Gregory here. Any review of all my columns on Second Amendment issues will show that I’ve been right up there with the strongest defenders of gun owners’ rights you’re likely to find, and I remain so to this day. I’m also something of a nitpicker myself when it comes to a love of words. But this argument, as satisfying as some may find it to use, really doesn’t seem to be helping anything.