Fire and fury, lock and load—are we doomed to face an alliterative apocalypse?

Here's another snappy catchphrase for the rest of us: “Duck and cover"
September 12, 2017

Are we all still here? I write in optimism, because there’s nothing that dents a magazine’s circulation and a columnist’s potential readership like the world having been bombed into a patchwork of greenly luminescent basketball pitches. And at the time of writing that is the route down which we seem to be heading. Or so excitable headlines—and the excitable communiqués on which those headlines are based—seem to suggest.

“Fire and fury” is what the 45th President of the United States of America promised, in a press conference sally against the leadership of North Korea. “North Korea… best not make any more threats to the US. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Leaving aside the hair-raising geopolitical/diplomatic/game-theoretical—or, as you might call them, “kaboomy”—implications, one has to admire a catchy turn of phrase delivered off the cuff.

Fire and fury don’t just alliterate; they enact a turn: the first vowel sound twists from the high-pitched “I” into the lower—and hence more threatening—“u.”

That’s all accomplished within a consonantal framework that allows the words to play off each other: the metaphor (fire) and the thing it’s a metaphor for (fury); the literal thing (atomic fire) and the emotional state (fury) that brings it about. And “fury” carries in it an auditory ghost of its near-rhyme, “fiery,” yoking the two terms closer together. I think Gerard Manley Hopkins would have been rather proud of it.

It has a biblical ring to it, quite in keeping with the Hopkins flavour. Isaiah 66:15, in the King James Version: “For, behold, the Lord will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.” That said, Donald Trump, unlike his predecessor (steeped in the Baptist tradition of politico-religious oratory via Martin Luther King), does not have a ready habit of quoting scripture.

He may, rather, have come to the style of the phrase via another obvious ancestor: the hitman Jules, played by Samuel L Jackson, in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Shortly before popping a cap in some unfortunate’s ass, Jules quotes a version of Ezekiel 25:17: “I will strike down upon thee [sic] with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

Anyway, the president decided a few days later that all this stuff—presumably lost on the heathen North Koreans in any case—“maybe wasn’t tough enough.” He reminded Pyongyang: “If North Korea does anything in terms of even thinking about attack […] they can be very nervous. Because things will happen to them like they never thought possible.” There’s not all that much linguistically, there, to get your teeth into, but it does seem to locate the discussion in the imaginary mind of North Korea. We’ll know what you’re thinking; and what we’ll do is beyond what you can imagine.

Having decided, perhaps, that was too abstract, he hit on another alliterative formula in a tweet: “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!”

Here the idiom is not from the Bible, but from the slang of the 1940s US military, as channelled through the John Wayne movie the Sands of Iwo Jima: “We’re crossing the line of departure. Lock and load.” I don’t know whether that’s something you do with nuclear weapons, exactly, but the meaning is clear enough. And, again, it lets a vowel sound pivot euphoniously: from short “lo-” to long “loa-.”

What comes next? If I were a betting man, then in consideration of the way in which Trump’s war-footing word-hoard seems to be drawn from the movies, I’d be putting my soon-to-be-useless money on Dirty Harry’s “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”; followed in short order by another from the Duke: “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch.”

And another snappy catchphrase for the rest of us: “Duck and cover.”