Smoking gun

Posted by Lewis on March 21, 2003

In Reply to: Smoking gun posted by ESC on March 17, 2003

: : Today, with the possibility of war upon us, I have heard the phrase "smoking gun" fall from the lips of many news reporters, radio personalities, etc. Has the meaning of "smoking gun" changed over the years? What was it's original intention? Thanks!

: SMOKING GUN - "incontrovertible evidence; the proof of guilt that precipitates resignations. 'The chaplain stood with a smoking pistol in his hand,' wrote A. Conan Doyle in a Sherlock Holmes story . Such a stance is generally considered suggestive of obvious (sometimes too obvious) guilt. During the Watergate investigation, Nixon defenders insisted that while much impropriety could be observed, no proof of presidential obstruction of justice - 'no smoking gun' - had been found. Then, on the release of the June 23, 1972, tape, H. R. Haldeman was shown to have said to the President that 'the FBI is not under control' and that the CIA could be used to block the FBI investigation. When Haldeman said, 'And you seem to think the thing to do is to get them the FBI to stop?,' the president replied, 'Right, fine.' Representative Barber Conable, a conservative Republican, said that the evidence on the June 23 tape 'looked like a smoking gun.' The term, which had been 'in the air' for months, was widely quoted. Within days the President resigned, and the simile's incontrovertible-evidence meaning was reinforced." From Safire's New Political Dictionary by William Safire (Random House, New York, 1993).

: It's similar to:

: CAUGHT RED-HANDED - "'To be taken with red hand' in ancient times was to be caught in the act, like a murderer, his hands red with his victim's blood. The use of 'red hand' in this sense goes back to 15th century Scotland and Scottish law. Scott's 'Ivanhoe' has the first recorded use of 'taken red-handed' for someone apprehended in the act of committing a crime. Not long after, the expression became more common as 'caught red-handed.'" From Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997), Page 135-136.

Just to add a snippet - the importance is in the "smoking" part of the modern expression, because for a gun still to be smoking, it must have only been just fired, whereas being red-handed could be due to handling the body and is not incontrovertible proof of guilt. if you pick up a gun, it would be almost impossible for it to be still smoking, so the strong inference is that the gun being in the hand smoking, it was discharged by the person holding it.