“Musket”: the hawkish language of a gadfly?

Former Congressman Joe Walsh caused a stir (and probably a visit from the Secret Service) after he tweeted he’ll be grabbing his “musket” if Donald Trump loses the election. He added, “You in?” Walsh claimed he wasn’t calling for an armed revolution but just using musket as a symbol of protest. Either way, Walsh’s words were quite hawkish – and literally so, if we look to the etymology of musket.

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A call to…hawks? The Eurasian sparrowhawk. Image by Katie Fuller (Bogbumper), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  

Musket

English first fired off musket in the late 1500s. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests the firearm in 1574, noting that it was the general term for an infantry gun until rifle supplanted it in the 19th century. The word is borrowed from the French mosquet, itself from the Italian moschetto, a “crossbow arrow.” Indeed, early muskets once shot arrows as well as bullets.

But in Italian, moschetto originally referred to the “sparrowhawk.” Both English and French also borrowed moschetto for this bird of prey; musket is a now-archaic term for a “male sparrowhawk.” But moschetto actually takes its name from an altogether different creature. Like its Spanish cousin mosquito, moschetto means “little fly.” It’s a diminutive form of mosca, “fly,” from Latin’s musca. The English midge is a possible cognate of this musca.   

This etymology leaves us with two questions. First, why would a hawk be named after an insect? Many philologists have maintained that the sparrowhawk was called “little fly” because it looks speckled with flies when it’s in flight. Others, though, observe that many small birds have been likened to flies.

Second, why would a gun be likened to a bird? A number of early firearms took the names of birds and beasts. The falconet and saker calibers shot off like swift falcons. Dragoon breathed fire like its mythical namesake. The culverin hissed like its etymological snake. The zumbooruk, mounted on a camel, stung like its Persian root for “hornet.” Musket, then, evolved from “sparrowhawk” to “crossbow arrow” to the “crossbow” itself, extended to the weapon’s technological update, the musket.

Regardless of the outcome, let’s hope that no muskets flare on Election Day – and that Walsh’s words are just the blather of a gadfly.

m ∫ r ∫

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3 thoughts on ““Musket”: the hawkish language of a gadfly?

  1. Musket was not a very well-chosen word by the Hon. Congressman, he couldn’t keep his powder dry anyhow. Thank you for another educational post. I have always been fascinated by the fearless little sparrowhawk. Some people believe our election process in these United States is coming apart at the seams. We did elect an idiot twice, according to a few countries. We elected a black to two terms, shocking most people. He was hated so badly, the oppisition swore to pass nothing he proposed. Now they pay the fiddler, as Donald Trump steps up to the plate. I will not even comment on that. I do believe Hillary has the balls to match Margaret Thatcher, so maybe our country is actually on a rebound. We can all hope!

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  2. Who put the goon in dragoon and how did it evove as a soilder on foot, on horseback, and to into coersion, and tiny blunderbusses?

    Maybe Joe Walsh was slyly calling for circle jerking in coded language and not inciting a feebly-armed insurrection against “The fur” if he gets elected?

    When did combover become a term? A combover for two terms!? NOooooooo!

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  3. A local tabloid used the morbid cliche “playing Russian roulette” in a column on the fishery, and, in an article about school bus maintenence within a week. A fish gun, anyone. Blunderbus crapshooting maintenence has widespead effect.

    Thank you for fueling NFLD satire pwr as a catylist at least. Musket balls! Land sakes! Muskrat is on a mercury switch.

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