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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

go ballistic

(early 1990’s | militarese | “go bananas,” “fly into a rage,” “go into a frenzy”)

“Go ballistic,” when used about a missile, denotes the moment when the rocket shuts off and the projectile’s trajectory is determined by momentum, gravity, air resistance, etc. In other words, when all chance of guiding the missile is gone. So maybe “go ballistic” means “lose control,” a short hop from our common metaphorical use. A Straight Dope message board thread supports this view — see the comments below the main post. The same comment section offers another possible origin: the idea that “ballistic” really means “international,” because calculating a “ballistic path” was required to hit targets a long way away. Therefore, “go ballistic” really means “escalate a local conflict into an international one.” Here’s another Straight Dope thread, in which a different commenter etymologizes thus: “People who didn’t know what ‘ballistic’ meant were hearing the phrase all the time, attached to the concept of weapons of mass destruction. So by context, ‘ballistic’ meant ‘intensely threatening,’ and thus, ‘going ballistic’ describes a temper tantrum or rampage.” Long live Cecil Adams and his merry band of renegades.

Used to mean “lose it” or “go bonkers,” the phrase seems to arise in the late 1980’s. It was beloved of politicians when it was young and fresh, which suggests a military origin. Several commentators noted that George H.W. Bush liked the term and used it during the 1988 campaign, and it certainly cropped up a lot more often after that. An odd feature: most of the time, “go ballistic” is something a person does, but occasionally it is used of corporate bodies as well, like a union or a bloc of shareholders. It would sound strange for an organization to “lose it” or “go postal,” but it is possible for a group to go ballistic. The expression doesn’t always refer to rage; an Associated Press article on Pentagon slang (May 18, 1989) defined it as “get overly excited.” But even there, I think one would expect a certain amount of anger, even if only part of a larger emotional outburst. Whatever you think of the origins posited above, in most people’s minds, ballistic = missile = bellicose.

The go + adjective construction has a certain appeal. Mark Liberman of Language Log has filed not one, but two posts on the subject. It’s very old; it has been possible to “go mad” for centuries and there are many other examples. “Go ballistic” seems to fit into this pattern, in which “go” is a synonym for “become,” but it’s hard to be sure. “Go postal” isn’t the same pattern; it’s more like “go Hollywood.” The new state isn’t captured in one word — there’s an extra twist. You have to grasp a sequence of events or a complex of characteristics to get the point.

go postal

(late 1990’s | “go on a (murderous) rampage,” “run amok”)

My memory played me false with this expression, which I distinctly recalled from the 1980’s. But, says LexisNexis, it doesn’t start to creep in until 1994 or so, the year after two post offices were shot up on the same day; other notable attacks had attracted attention not long before. (A long CNN report on violence among postal workers from May 7, 1993, featured several experts and discussed several such incidents in detail. No one used or mentioned the phrase “go postal.”) The term has retained its original quite limited sense: a (usually former) employee entering the workplace to do violence, almost always with firearms. Most on-line dictionaries report the usual metaphorical creep and say that “go postal” can refer to any kind of violent outburst or tantrum. To my ear, that doesn’t sound right. We have so many ways to say “fly off the handle,” and as far as I can tell, “go postal” isn’t one of them. Going postal has to be premeditated.

Although the wellspring of the term was clearly yesterday’s headlines, no one seems to know exactly how it entered the language: computer slang and consultant jargon were two suggestions I found on LexisNexis. It has a certain irreverent tinge to it that suggests the detached mind of the computer jock, but it doesn’t seem obviously related to computerese. Perhaps because it arose so immediately from the events of the day, it didn’t need a route through a particular jargon but could just appear in everyone’s vocabulary simultaneously.

My sense that this phrase has passed its peak and is not as common as it used to be isn’t really borne out by LexisNexis, but it isn’t contradicted, either. Two fairly prominent authors used “going postal” as a title in the same year (2005): Mark Ames, in a book about workplace violence; and Terry Pratchett, in a novel about resuscitating a postal service in a world “a lot like our own but different.” Neither effort seems to have launched the expression into greater prominence.

There was plenty of commentary on the phenomenon of crazed postal employees going after their co-workers back in the 1990’s, and lots of experts who talked about the neuroses of postal workers (always “disgruntled“) or arrogant Post Office management. I’ve never seen anyone mention an obvious factor, the so-called “privatization” of USPS. Actually, the Postal Service is not now, nor has it ever been private; technically, it’s part of the executive branch. But “privatization” was real all the same — here’s a useful if tendentious history. New strategies designed by corporate wizards — based on the pretense that a government agency can or should act like a private corporation — got going in the late 1980’s, not long before a minor wave of workplace violence gave us the new expression. Postal workers, most of whom had spent years as public employees and were used to a certain amount of security, suddenly found their jobs endangered, working conditions made worse, and changes in rights and benefits forced on them from above. Anybody out there think all that won’t increase workplace stress?

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