Mind your language

Is Billie Eilish really in shock over James Bond?

7 February 2020

10:00 PM

7 February 2020

10:00 PM

Billie Eilish, who has just won five Grammys, is also singing the theme song for the next Bond film. ‘James Bond is the coolest film franchise ever to exist,’ she said. ‘I’m still in shock.’

My husband tells me that the symptoms of shock include pale, clammy skin and bluish fingernails. Since Miss Eilish’s fingernails were painted green at the Grammy ceremony, it was not easy to tell. But a life-threatening drop in blood pressure was clearly not present.

The phrase in shock is now used where we used to say shocked, or even overjoyed. Perhaps people have been watching Casualty too much. From a metaphor, it has become an annoying cliché.

Shock, from the French choque, began as the word for a collision of armies. Shakespeare was in the first generation to use it when he wrote in Richard III of a ‘doubtful shock of arms’. He soon had Hamlet speaking of ‘The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to’.

Shock lent itself to various shocking phenomena. In 1719, Defoe had Robinson Crusoe ‘terribly frighted with a most dreadful, surprising thing’, three shocks of an earthquake that almost buried him in his cave. In 1746, the experimental scientist William Watson got a man to hold an electrically charged Leyden jar (or phial as he called it) and the barrel of a gun with the other hand. ‘He receives a violent shock through both his arms,’ he reported triumphantly to the Royal Society.

The 19th-century French phrase troupe de choc was taken up in English as shock troops, which was later used as the model for shock workers, translating the Soviet Russian word udarniki, for those who voluntarily exceeded production quotas.

The shock of surgical operations was observed in the early 19th century. Some similarities to its effect promoted the notion on the first world war of shell shock. Before the war was over, shell shock was being used as a trivial metaphor for a surprise.

Calling the state of shock being in shock seems to have caught on scientifically in the 1920s. To use it for an agreeable surprise should no more be encouraged than the erroneous use of schizophrenic for being in two minds.

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