Sen. Orrin Hatch got people tittering when he was quoted by Politico on Monday about how it was time for Republicans to move on from healthcare and to tackle tax reform instead.
“We’re not going back to healthcare. We’re in tax now,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, they shot their wad on healthcare and that’s the way it is.”
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Was this an appropriate thing for an 83-year-old elected official to say? On Twitter, the news that Hatch was talking about Republican leadership “shooting their wad” was greeted with some surprise. Nathaniel Weixel, a reporter for the Hill, tweeted, “that’s... graphic. especially coming from Hatch.” Many assumed that the phrase shoot one’s wad is based on a sexual meaning: to ejaculate.
But as one of Weixel’s colleagues at the Hill soon reported, the expression has had a long non-sexual history in American English. In his defense, Sen. Hatch’s own office tweeted out the entry for wad from the Oxford English Dictionary, explaining that it originally referred to “a plug of tow, cloth, etc., a disk of felt or cardboard, to retain the powder and shot in position in charging a gun or cartridge.”
In a playful reference to Hatch’s advanced age, the tweet read, “As few of you were alive during the Civil War, here’s a valuable jargon lesson on ‘wads’ and the shooting of them.” Matt Whitlock, Hatch’s communications director, continued the age jokes on Twitter, saying the expression was “used quite often during the Civil War when Hatch was just a young Senator.”
It’s true that shooting one’s wad dates back to the Civil War era, extended from the battlefield to more metaphorical usage to mean “use up all one’s resources” or “do all one can do.” The earliest such example that I’ve found in newspaper databases comes from the Clearfield (Pa.) Republican of Aug. 15, 1860, reporting on an abolitionists long-winded speech: “He, too, was called to the stand, and after torturing himself severely some thirty minutes, sat down—not that the audience were tired of him, by any means; but the gentleman had shot his wad.”
Over time, however, the use of wadding in the firing of a gun became a historical relic, and the phrase took on more colorful connotations. It joined a family of slang expressions for male ejaculation starting with shoot, which itself had taken on a sexual meaning as early as 1573, according to Jonathon Green’s comprehensive work, Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Among the ejaculatory phrases catalogued by Green are shoot one’s bolt, shoot one’s load, shoot one’s milt, and shoot one’s roe. Julie Coleman’s Love, Sex, and Marriage: A Historical Thesaurus adds shoot one’s cocoa, shoot one’s lot, and shoot one’s milk.
It was inevitable, then, that shoot one’s wad would get this lurid reinterpretation. Green’s earliest recorded example of the sexual meaning is from Nell Kimball: Her Life as an American Madam. Kimball wrote her memoir around 1930 (though it wasn’t published until decades later), recalling her days as a madam in the late 19th century. She wrote, “Even a damn Indian ... would come to St. Louie to celebrate and take the girls upstairs, shoot his wad.” Further citations include Henry Miller’s Sexus from 1949: “I had such an erection that even after I shot a wad into her it stayed up like a hammer.”
Somehow, however, Senator Hatch must have missed this semantic development. It’s true that he often uses rather old-timey language—he dipped into slang from the 1930s recently when he said that Donald Trump was occasionally guilty of “a dipsy-doodle” when using social media. One imagines that if he were aware of the sexual association of shooting one’s wad, he would have held his fire.