Gun. It’s such a cruelly simple word for a terrorizing technology that is senselessly and needlessly claiming too many American lives—59 alone, as we witnessed in the horrific massacre in Las Vegas this week. Where does this deadly word derive from?
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.
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.