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Thanks for your understanding.
Chris -- 2018-04-11
The familiar phrase “parting shot” is in fact a widely disseminated eggcorn. A signature tactic of the cavalry archers of Parthia (ancient Iran) was to charge firing towards their enemy, halt the charge, turn 180 degrees, and fire one last volley while fleeing. The tactic, and by analogy the practice of deploying an insulting exit line, was called a “Parthian shot.”
Nice piece of history. In some circles “parting shots” refers to “those shots of alcohol taken before parting from friends.” One has to wonder whether this too has spawned “party shots” either as an eggcorn or a conscious reshaping.
This one looks like a classic example of an eggcorn. You’ve got a learned, rare word – “Parthian” – that seems to be replaced by “parting,” a much more common term that is similar in sound. And both phrases mean more or less the same thing. The pattern is familiar to all regulars on the forum.
But a problem arises if you go look at the citation dates for these phrases. According to the OED, the earliest citation for “parting shot” is from 1835:
1835 W. G. SIMMS Yemassee II. xxii. 189 A parting shot from the muskets of the seamen was made with a fatal effect.
The earliest citation for “Parthian shot” – the ostensible original – appears a few years later in 1842:
1842 Times 20 Apr. (Suppl.) 1/1 They have probably enough dealt a Parthian shot to British interests, by setting the Nacional once more upon its legs.
Admittedly, the earliest citation for “parting” is a literal use of the phrase while the earliest for “Parthian” is figurative. But that doesn’t seem to matter much since the claim is that “parting shot” is a development from a literal use of “Parthian shot.”
1835 and 1842 are only seven years apart, and tracking down earliest citations is a very tricky business; it would therefore be silly to claim that the citations prove that “parting shot” is the original phrase. More research might well turn up 18th century examples for “Parthian shot.”
But as it stands now, the evidence certainly suggests an alternate originary narrative: in the 1830s, the annoying new phrase “parting shot” may have sounded like it could have been derived from a far more respectable phrase – “Parthian shot.” And the latter phrase is so close in meaning to the “innovation” that that fact alone might have been enough to convince some very educated people. So they put “Parthian shot” into circulation. In other words, “parting shot” may have been seen as an “eggcorn” of a more impressively learned phrase – even though no one was going around saying “Parthian shot.” And as a result of this hypereducated hypercorrection, the eggcorn “Parthian shot” was born.
It’s quite possible that my alternate history is just that – a window onto a lexical time-stream that never really existed. But someone will have to come up with a citation for “Parthian shot” from 1834 or earlier to convince me of that.
I imagine more people have heard of the Parthenon than have heard of Parthia, which leaves only the difficulty of deciding what a Parthenon shot might be. I’m not sure that it matters; there are several contenders but anyone who knows about Elgin marbles or Ottoman munition dumps would surely have heard of Parthian shots?
The parthenon archer making the famed parthenon shot where you turned backwards 180 on a horse.
“The sentence will be carried out within the next week,” he informed my father, and delivered a Parthenon shot: “God have mercy on your soul.”
... but, from the doorway, took a Parthenon shot at her exalted audience, “for the ruling families of England and San Marcos may already have become united.