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I was watching a movie with my wife, whose first (and main) language is French. On character asked another something along the lines of "Can I ask you a question?". She replied "Shoot."

That was rather confusing for my wife, who thought that maybe it implied some sense of speed/urgency. When I explained it really is just idiomatic for "Yes" or "Go ahead and ask," I had a very hard time explaining why we would use the word "shoot" for that. And an even harder to explaining the subtlety of it versus "yes" or "sure" or "go ahead."

Anyway, what is the origin of using the word "shoot" to mean it is okay to ask a question? And as a sub-question, is it used in all English, or is it particular to American English and others use different idiomatic expressions for the same thing?

  • Of course, suggest/edit more appropriate tags as needed... I am not sure how to classify this here. – tpg2114 Mar 4 '18 at 2:51
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    I wonder whether your wife would have understood it better if the character had instead replied, “Fire away.” – tchrist Mar 4 '18 at 2:53
  • @tchrist Definitely not... I just asked, and she was quite confused about what that would mean. She asked why somebody would want to run away when somebody asked a question -- "vas-y" seems to be what she thought that would mean. – tpg2114 Mar 4 '18 at 2:58
  • That's very interesting to know, although "fire away" and "flee away" are different things. :) But "vas-y" as "go there/to it" isn't bad. – tchrist Mar 4 '18 at 3:00
  • @tchrist Yeah... I don't know how she thought that's what it would mean. It is also interesting since the idea of "going there" comes up in English with questions too. You made me realize there are a lot of war-like things come up with questioning somebody -- "shoot," "fire away," or somebody asking a "volley" of questions. Maybe that's a whole separate question though... I wonder if all languages view questions as adversarial. – tpg2114 Mar 4 '18 at 3:06
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The earliest mention of 'shoot' in regard to asking a question that I can find is quoted in OED from 1225 and from the other citations it seems to have been an accepted idiom throughout the past eight centuries, or so, for utterances of various kinds.

But I have not, as yet, found the invitation to 'shoot', only the fact that 'shoot' is associated with asking a question or speaking forth.

a1225 Leg. Kath. 812 Scheoteð forð sum word, & let us onswerien.

a1250 Owl & Night. (Jesus Oxf.) 23 Bet þuhte þe drem þat he were Of harpe & pipe þan he nere, Bet þuhte þat heo were i-shote Of harpe & pipe þan of þrote.

▸?a1500 R. Henryson tr. Æsop Fables: Trial of Fox l. 847 in Poems (1981) 36 He..Schot out his voce full schyll, and gaif ane schout.

1546 J. Heywood Dialogue Prouerbes Eng. Tongue ii. iii. sig. Gv But shoote out some wordes, yf she be to whot.

1602 J. Marston Hist. Antonio & Mellida ii. sig. D2v I would shoot some speach forth, to strike the time With pleasing touch of amorous complement.

1656 J. Smith Myst. Rhetorique Unvail'd 143 Acclamo to cry out or shoot forth the voice.

1846 Dickens Dombey & Son (1848) iii. 19 Shooting out whatever she had to say in one sentence, and in one breath, if possible.

1848 Thackeray Vanity Fair lx. 541 Even Dobbin would shoot out a sudden peal [of laughter] at the boy's mimicry.

1886 R. L. Stevenson Kidnapped iii. 22 From time to time..he shot out one of his questions.

OED - 'shoot' II b

  • Looks like you’re missing some quote formatting – Laurel Mar 4 '18 at 3:57
  • @Laurel I only highlighted the quotes that specifically dealt with questions but I left in the others which relate to speech, generally. – Nigel J Mar 4 '18 at 4:02
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    That's interesting, it seems it's not particular to American English at least! I still wonder where it came from originally though... – tpg2114 Mar 5 '18 at 13:59

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