April 29, 2013

Case File #013.04.29: TORPEDO

When torpedo was coined circa 1520, it originally referred to the sea creature we now know as the electric ray, and modern biologists, in fact, still use torpedo to denote the genus of this particular fish. The word was derived from the Latin noun torpere, meaning “to be numb or lethargic,” and was probably meant to allude to the way the ray's electric discharge affects the human body. The sense of torpedo as an explosive nautical weapon didn't come about until 1776. At the time, such devices were little more than floating mines that had to be pulled or pushed into place by a boat or ship, and when the mines were in transit, they looked a bit like swimming rays and were therefore often jokingly referred to as such. And of course, the nickname stuck. The now familiar cylindrical, self-propelled form of torpedo was invented in the 1860s, and not long after, the verb torpedo was coined. However, the figurative sense of the verb—that is, “to ruin a plan or project” or “to assail vigorously or persistently”—didn't appear until around 1895.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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