Q&A: “A shot or stab in the dark?”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're taking a shot in the dark…

Q: Hey AWC, my friend and I were trying to guess how many rooms there are in Buckingham Palace.

A: A right royal dilemma. 

Q: We had no real idea, but I took a shot in the dark with 180 and she took a stab in the dark with 359. Who was correct?

A: Well you’re both way out. There are 775 rooms.

Q: First, wow. Second, no I didn’t mean that. I meant whose phrase was correct? Is a wild guess a “shot in the dark” or a “stab in the dark”?

A: Oh! Well, it’s both of course.

Q: Ugh, again? Why can’t English just make up its mind!

A: Well that’s tricky when you’re a constantly evolving language…

Q: So, is it a geography thing? Perhaps Americans use “shot” because of their Second Amendment rights?

A: Um, no.

Q: Why would you even want those heavy, furry paws anyway?

A: Sorry?

Q: It’s odd they’d want the right to bear arms. I personally think they’d be uncomfortable – I’m fine with my normal human arms.

A: You’re hilarious. Now do the 13th Amendment.

Q: I’m not your slave.

A: Anyway, there appears to be no specific American favouritism for one or the other. However, the world in general seems to use “shot in the dark” a whole lot more. It was the original.

Q: But daggers were around before guns!

A: Sure, but this phrase came along when both weapons already existed, so that’s irrelevant. In fact, the earliest appearance of “shot in the dark” in text was in 1895 – George Bernard Shaw writing in a publication called The Saturday Review. It’s likely that the “stabby” variant came after that, not before it.

Q: Fair enough.

A: In fact, “stab” was busy around this time. During the 1880s it debuted the figurative use of “stabbing someone in the back” for treacherous betrayal.

Q: Jack the Ripper wasn’t very figurative. And he was around in the 1880s.

A: Okay sure. But he stabbed women in the throat, not the back.

Q: Fair enough. Carry on.

A: Anyway, it wasn’t until 1895 (the same year Bernard Shaw was shooting in the dark) that a “stab” became synonymous with “a try” – for example, “I’ll have a stab at that”. That’s why it’s unlikely that “stab in the dark” would have been earlier.

Q: So if it’s just an innocent wild guess, why does it have to sound so murderous? Who killed the lights?

A: Well, “in the dark” in this context is to be in a state of ignorance – first used in this figurative sense in the 1670s. It’s where we later got “dark horse” from – nothing to do with colour, but instead the same “unknown” meaning of dark.

Q: Are you sure it’s not Professor Plum with the dagger, in the study?

A: Absolutely sure. But feel free to use either the dagger or revolver if you want to express a wild guess.

Q: All this reminds me of my great uncle Wyatt who used to own a bar. The power was always going out there so there were plenty of shots in the dark at that fine establishment.

A: Nice.

Q: Maybe a few stabbings too, now that I think about it…

A: Would you like to take a stab at a summary?

Q: Okay. I’m fine to use either “shot” or “stab” in the dark in my writing, although “shot” is the original version of the two. Essentially however, both mean the same thing – a wild, uninformed guess. Where no one dies.

A: That’s the upshot.

Q: I’m still shocked about Buckingham Palace having 775 rooms. You’d just get finished cleaning them and have to start again.

A: Good point.

Q: Time to shoot through?

A: Sure, let’s get well shot of this topic…


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