In matters of public affairs, we often hear about a person shooting himself in the foot. Typically, this means the person has exercised either poor judgment or incompetence, thus jeopardizing his cause.
Frankly, I’ve never given the expression much thought. It’s a descriptive image that accurately depicts an easy but serious error. The phrase is used, perhaps overused, in wide range of personal, business and political contexts.
My mother recently conveyed to me a peeve. She wondered why so many people, including articulate public speakers, misuse this expression, and not just use it incorrectly but use it essentially as a direct opposite of its real meaning.
I didn’t know this, but she explained that shooting themselves in the foot was what some soldiers did during World War I to get out of going into battle. It was done deliberately and out of fear or cowardice. One source explains that shooting oneself in the foot is “to deliberately sabotage an activity in order to avoid obligation, though it causes personal suffering.”
Clearly, to shoot oneself in the foot comes from such wartime acts. But these days, we hear a lot less about soldiers intentionally wounding themselves and more about people at home accidentally shooting their firearms and wounding themselves, often in the foot.
So it’s easy to see how the expression’s meaning morphed from intentional to accidental, from being caused by fear to being caused by stupidity.
As I contemplated whether there might be a scenario that encompassed both meanings, a long-repressed childhood memory came to mind that, until now, has remained a secret. When I was in the seventh grade, I jumped six feet off a jungle gym, hands first, intentionally spraining my wrist, to get out of a piano lesson.
The daughter of two musicians and a lover of music, I still regret not being able to play the piano. I guess I really shot myself in the foot.