As dull as a torpedo



The ongoing White House v. Congress struggle has recently involved the charge that one side wants to torpedo the other’s plan. That sounds violent, even metaphorically speaking, but torpedo has a more complicated usage history.

In his account of Dr. Johnson’s life, James Boswell reports the Great Cham’s remarking that “Tom Birch is as brisk as a bee in conversation; but no sooner does he take a pen in his hand than it becomes a torpedo to him, and benumbs his faculties.”

The passage occurs in Boswell’s report of events circa 1743, though the Life of Johnson doesn’t get published until 1791. In the Oxford English Dictionary steeplechase, Boswell is pipped to the post by an almost identical turn of phrase from Goldsmith’s Life of Richard Nash, published 1762.

Why “benumbed” by a torpedo? We don’t think of torpedoes as sluggish, much less dim-witted.

No sooner had I put down my copy of the Life (stockpiled for summer reading) than I looked up the OED entry for torpedo.

First, thetorpedo is the electric ray, a flatfish with the capacity to deliver an electric charge (so not an eel), and to numb the hands (and presumably other anatomic localities) of the unwary.

Our sense of the word torpedo turns on two seemingly antithetical objectives: a) to blow up, and b) to render numb. Its root, however, is in the Latin torpere, to make dull, from which we get the English word torpor, meaning inertia or lethargy.

Torpedo in the incendiary sense has been used at least since the 18th century to describe all sorts of things that go bang, including nonaquatic entertainments like the exploding caps one might throw at the floor. So the OED’s various citations map out a range of senses, from mines and bombs to smaller bits of devilry once common on playgrounds in a simpler age.

Torpedo in the druggy sense dates at least to 1940. The OED cites Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and the usage “yellow torpedoes,” referring to a particular form of narcotic. More recently, Urban Dictionary points to torpedo as a joint “laced with pcp.”

(By the way, one sense of torpedo missing from the OED is the torpedo sandwich, also known as the sub or submarine. Made on a long roll, this torpedo is honor-bound to be overstuffed with comestibles, its objective only to satisfy, and maybe to render blissfully dull, too.)

So is the drug torpedo a means to be dulled or exploded? Or do the two senses converge?

The electrifying, stupefying touch — the contact that plugs in and unplugs at the same time — is the idea bridging the gap between flatfish, military weapon, and seriously bad weed.

Whether the first writer who thought his brain was benumbed by his quill pen was Tom Birch or Richard Nash or someone else entirely (Aphra Behn?), one might find some small comfort in knowing that there is a long and not-so-secret history of writers paralyzed by the tools of their craft.

You probably don’t write with a quill, but you might now find yourself regarding your torpedo-shaped, click-top ballpoint pen as more nearly resembling the antagonist you always suspected it to be — equally ready to explode or to turn your brain to mush.

Despite my title today, I don’t think anyone really believes torpedoes are themselves dull things.

And I’m pretty sure nobody has ever said, “Damn the flatfish, full speed ahead.”

Except maybe on drugs.