Saturday, September 21, 2013

Idiom Fun: Hot As A What?!

Plastic bracelets from yesteryear; well, 2006 anyway. (9/15/13)
As a teacher in the upstate New York suburb of Greece, New York, and even furthermore a teacher at Greece Athena High School, most folks outside the region have a sense of where I live either by our presumed proximity to Buffalo (it's not that close) or as the school where the autistic student scored "all those threes" in 2006. While Jason McElwain's ESPY Award winning performance (and the incredible circumstances that made the story noteworthy in the first place) continues to be well documented, this post is about a little known corner of the "J-Mac"-verse that I was recently reminded of.

Upon returning from our most recent summer break, I was pleased to find that someone had anonymously gifted me with a unique present. While Jason and I have coached together the past few years (not basketball, but the high school sport that he earned his first athletic recognition as a student-athlete: cross-country running) I had only been part of the Athena school community for a few short months when the "J-Mac" story struck. I had just begun teaching on the building's third floor, which was at that point a separate (other than by name and location) middle school program. I wasn't at the game and I really didn't even get "it." At first.

In the days following the national exposure of his story, all types of t-shirts and memorabilia became common in the school halls, most notably two items with competing J-Macisms: a t-shirt imploring folks to "Stay Focused!" and black and gold (the school's colors) with a secondary phrase which for many outside the Greece community has been lost to the sands of time, "Hot as a Pistol!"

The anonymous gift I received at the start of this school year was an unwrapped black wristband which on one side was impressed in bold gold lettering "Greece Athena Trojans." On the opposing side was the phrase "Hot as a Pistol!" with an illustration of a basketball right of the lettering and a small handgun to the left. You read correctly: a small handgun.

Beyond my appreciation for the many great athletic accomplishments of our school's current and past student-athlete's, I am also a member of the English department, and as such, enjoy the wordplay of interesting (if not necessarily well-turned) idiom. The choice of that particular idiom on a celebratory bracelet such as this to be sold in a school is unusual, especially given its use of a phrase that reflects gun use and includes firearm imagery. The fact that a bracelet with this idiom was distributed at all  recalls "gentler" times(?) when fire arms idioms were not seen in such poor light. Of course, in our current climate, given the horrendous spate of national gun violence tragedies in school settings, a bracelet such as this would never see the light of day.

So just where does the phrase "hot as a pistol" come from? All idioms come from somewhere after all...

Most assuredly, Jason innocently used the phrase to reflect how "on target" he was on the basketball court that evening. He did after all make successive three point shots. Country legend George Jones once famously sang the Gary Lee Gentry lyrics that "Lord, she was 'hotter than a two dollar pistol'" which has a very different connotation. In both cases being "hot as a pistol" is a decidedly positive state to be in. The irony here is that in the past being "hot as a pistol", two dollar or otherwise, was actually not a good thing.

I would imagine that initially the idiom was intended to reflect the poor quality of an inexpensive (two dollar) pistol. Being "cheap" (and small), an inexpensive pistol is likely to yield significantly higher chamber pressures (hotter) than a more costly counterpart. Additionally, a cheap firearm is made of lesser quality materials, and will heat up quickly when fired; cheap metal doesn't conduct heat as well as heavier, more expensive metal. Being hot as pistol may have been a phrase turned to suggest something that, when used, was revealed to be of a lesser quality.

More modern translations, however, are more in line with J-Mac's intent. One online slang dictionary defines a "pistol" as "a person who is bright, quick, or energetic," for example in phrases such as hot as a pistol. Interestingly this new detonation of the noun pistol does dissipate the gun connotation from the phrase making it somewhat less insensitive. Of course, the gun graphic beside the quote on the bracelet reinforces the less desirable connotation, reinforcing the original (less positive) gun motif.  

Also lost to time is the side note, confirmed on Wikipedia, that Jason's Speech/Language Pathologist throughout high school, who was in attendance that night, later assisted him in "coin(ing) alternative language expressions to his now-famous 'hot as a pistol' phrase." One can only guess at what additional phrases were never given credence by making their way onto tee shirts and bracelets, but thankfully, the hot as an idiom has done nothing the diminish the overwhelmingly inspirational message of McElwain's feat.

The fantastic good news is, that either in the past or present, that amazing Youtube footage, and the cultural icon it led to, has not lost its very positive connotation.

Jason McElwain (J-Mac) and I coaching at the 2012 Section V X-C Championship.

J-Mac's ESPN story

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