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"Glass cannon" is a popular term in gaming (especially online-gaming), where it refers to a character class that has remarkable offensive power, but has low defense. Urban Dictionary also defines this as:

Refers to a person, weapon, or vehicle which has a high output, but a low defense, life, durability, etc. link

However, I failed to find any references other than the above one. "Glass cannon" actually sounds pretty intuitive, so one can guess the meaning even when hearing it for the first time.

Is this phrase generally recognized outside of the gaming world (i.e., could I use it in a general conversation and be understood), and if it is, what is its etymology?

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Isn't the etymology pretty obvious? Then again obvious etymologies are often incorrect ;-) –  Joachim Sauer Oct 9 '12 at 10:09
    
@Joachim Sauer: I don't know how "obvious" the etymology is, but my guess is it's a variation of the boxer's glass jaw. I don't know any other idiomatic usage linking aggressive/powerful fighting abilities to the fragility of glass. –  FumbleFingers Oct 9 '12 at 21:16
    
@FumbleFingers: except that a glass jaw is a weakness, and only a weakness. In glass cannon, the two words are contrasted: "glass" implies weakness, but "cannon" implies strength. So I don't think there's an etymological link to glass jaw, apart from both phrases happening to use the metaphor of a material known to be fragile. –  Marthaª Oct 9 '12 at 21:49
    
@Marthaª: I think you're probably overanalysing the semantics. In the real world, it's often a brass cannon, so phonologically we're not far away. I can't think of any "aggressive" context for glass apart from the particularly unpleasant verb meaning to smash a pint glass into someone's face. But there's also a loose cannon, so clearly cannon can be modified in a variety of ways. –  FumbleFingers Oct 9 '12 at 22:05
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4 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I'm not a gamer, and I've never heard the term before now.

As to whether or not I could deduce its meaning, that depends entirely on context.

A similar phrase that first springs to mind is loose cannon, which etymologically has little to do with a cannon's firepower, but more to do with the dangers of a unsecured cannon rolling around on the deck of a ship.

Idioms using the word glass can refer to fragility (as in glass cannon), but the word often connotes transparency as well. A glass ceiling is something that you know is there, even if you can't "see" it. However, glass ceilings aren't exactly known for being easy to break. In software, glass box testing (more commonly called white box testing) means that the testers can "see" the inner workings of the code when designing their test plans.

In short, I wouldn't count on people being able to figure out the meaning of the expression merely by examining the two words put together. That said, the phrase might still be decipherable in some contexts, depending on what other clues are present.

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I'm a long-time gamer and I'm quite familiar with the term glass cannon, but when I first heard it I assumed that a "glass cannon" was a weapon/character/whatever prone to self-destruction, since a real cannon made of glass would likely be destroyed when subjected to the explosive force of gunpowder. –  Marcus_33 Oct 9 '12 at 14:55
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What @Marcus_33 said: my first reaction to glass cannon was, "well, that wouldn't survive its first firing too well, would it?" I can sorta see the gaming interpretation once it's explained, but if I just met the phrase "in the wild", there would have to be a heck of a lot of context to prevent my brain from going to the "lots of glass shards flying around" image. –  Marthaª Oct 9 '12 at 15:31
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Outside of the gaming world it's not really used. However, it's a nice expression and I think it would be understood.

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+1 This is how the language gets richer. –  StoneyB Oct 9 '12 at 12:04
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That reminds me of Diablo 3, where character class like, Demon Hunter / Wizard usually falls into this category. I don't really hear this word anywhere else except in the gaming world.

Another similar example would be, Meat Shield, which is also very often used, which is opposite to the meaning of Glass Cannon.

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And to complete the trifecta "suspicious-looking fellows in dresses standing in the back and waving their hands in the air". –  Marcus_33 Oct 9 '12 at 18:40
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I've heard several types of missiles called glass cannons, because inherently they have no defense factor.

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