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I'm well aware that when someone says "he's the one who calls the shots" it means that that person is the one in charge, the one who takes all the relevant decisions.

But what's the origin of this figure of speech?

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Will the person that down voted the question care to explain the reason? –  Sekhemty May 12 '13 at 19:31
    
I didn't downvote, but these kinds of questions are generally general reference. New less irrelevant result: word-detective.com/052301.html#calltheshots –  Jeremy May 12 '13 at 19:48
    
Thanks. I've seen other etymology questions on the site, and the FAQ says that they are permitted, so I thought that it was ok to ask. –  Sekhemty May 12 '13 at 19:51
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It's a good idea to show what research you've already done on the question. For example, search online for "call the shots" etymology before asking your question, and you might not need to ask here. If research doesn't help, make a note in your question of what you already tried and why it didn't help. –  Bradd Szonye May 12 '13 at 23:46
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2 Answers 2

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Oxford English Dictionary

It appears to be a fairly recent phrase. The OED (sense 7.i. of shot) says it's originally and chiefly U.S. with a first quotation from 1967 in Elliot Liebow's Tally's Corner:

Sea Cat made no secret of the fact that Gloria was calling the shots in this relationship.

Confirmed antedatings

1943

There's a number of results in Google Books before 1967, possibly back to 1917, but the earliest I could confirm is this literal use from 1943 in The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy by Bell Irvin Wiley:

Occasionally the Yankees would interfere with culinary activities. In one instance during the Atlanta campaign Federal artillery opened on a group of Rebs as they were cooking their noon meal. One of the number was sent to a point of observation to call the shots so that the cooks could lie down after each salvo until the shells passed over.

Here, a soldier is literally calling out that shots are coming to warn the others.

1943

And an interesting use from the same year, in Popular Mechanics (Oct 1943 - Page 69, Vol. 80, No. 4):

He [the picture control operator] watches a cathode ray oscillograph to keep track of the wave shape patterns, and switches the transmitter feed from one camera to the other as the director calls the shots.

This is interesting. It's literal: the director is vocally telling what the camera should be shooting, but it's also the same as the figurative use: the director is in charge and decides what is shown.

1943

There's also three uses in Volume 16 (November 29 - December 20, 1943) of the hearings with testimony for the Investigation of un-American propaganda activities in the United States. Each is used by Mr. Myer giving evidence on Tule Lake internment camp for Japanese Americans.

Page 10,053:

I am getting a little brain fagged, Mr. Congressman. I am not sure I have called all my shots, but I think those are the major differences, as I can remember them.

Page 10,055:

Mr. MYER. My only comment is this, Mr. Congressman, that it is much easier for a kibitzer, after a thing is over, to call the shots than it is for a man on the job to call the shots.

Myer continues further down the page:

I do not thingk that any general would tell you that the best time to attack is when the enemy seemed to be in reasoable control of the situation. I would rather call my own shots. I was not in a position to call----

Both its literal and figurative uses can be found later in the 1940s.

Unconfirmed antedatings

There's a number of earlier examples, but they appear only in snippets and Google may have got the date wrong. But, taken as a whole, they show a kind of evolution of the phrase.

1917

Arms and the Man (Volume 63 - Page 427 - an precursor to the NRA's American Rifleman) uses the phrase twice. First:

.. make such groups with service sights but from the ease with which I can call the shots I should judge this to be the case. At 200 yards on one occasion I had one fellow declaring emphatically that I could see the bullet holes as I spotting pretty fair that day with 15.

Second:

This custom with him arose because, he declared, he could not call the shots made with ground bullets as successfully as he could call those made with patched bullets.

Both of these suggest someone judging how well shots from a gun hit a target.

1918

The same publication uses it in a similar way the next year in volume 64:

Then Harker stood near the target, to call the shots, his point of observation being some 20 feet to right and same distance to the rear. Bruce walked deliberately to the firing point and squared himself for the trials, with his favorite Remington in his trusty right grip and ten cartridges in his left.

1922, 1923, 1931, 1936

Later uses include calling the result of shooting firearms:

Or announcing the intended hole in pool or billiards:

  • a 1923 magazine: "Under our code of practice it was not necessary to call the shots and we have always been adept in pocketing balls not in the scope of our plan."),

Or judging another sports result:

  • The Train Dispatcher (1936): "Not only do most of the present tribe censure the umpire, but many of them call the shots before the umpire makes a decision. A real sports announcer, one who broadcasts the event as it occurred, would be highly appreciated."
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Interesting enough, the rather broad meaning of the word "shot" makes this phrase not only figurative but also literal in many situations. –  Sekhemty May 13 '13 at 19:47
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There appears to be a variety of supposed origins, military ancient and modern, billiards, hunting, floating logs down North American rivers... There's also this which goes back a bit:

... the term "call the shots" dates from the early 1500s when curling was first played in Scotland. The "skip" (team leader) "calls" the shot for his player i.e. distance, speed and line.

This is dated 7 March 2011 and is found on www.english-test.net.

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