Yesterday I asked a [question][1] about the meaning of "to stare down defeat" and I got an answer. But as I searched the net, I noticed that there's this phrase "to stare down the barrel of defeat" as a variant of "to stare down the barrel of gun". I wonder if, as one of the users mentioned in his comment on my previous question, "to stare down defeat" derives from "to stare down the barrel of gun/defeat".

As I learned from the previous question and from several examples on the net, "staring down defeat" means "struggling with and overcoming defeat personified as an opponent". But according to usingenglish.com, "If someone is staring down the barrel of a gun, there's a high risk of something very bad happening". Examples:

"Murray stared down defeat just as fiercely as he glowered at a heckler in the crowd."

"Nick Nurse hailed the mental strength of his title-chasing Brighton Bears after they twice stared down the barrel of defeat and survived for a weekend win double."

  • Any reason for vote down? – TBY90 Jul 23 '20 at 13:49
  • I don't know, but as you will see from my comment below, I doubt that there is any connection between to stare [someone/something] down and to stare down the barrel of a gun: as you say, the meanings are different. The earliest use of "to stare down" in the OED is 1798 A. Browne Misc. Sketches I. 181 They are able with unblushing cheek to stare down the passenger who gazes at their beauty. Also, in the former, "down" appears to be an adverb, and in the latter, a preposition. – Greybeard Jul 23 '20 at 16:12
  • What do they keep in the barrel of defeat? Rotten pickles? – John Lawler Jul 23 '20 at 17:02
  • @Greybeard - Your explanation seems logical, but what confused me about the phrase was the example I cited in my previous question: "Staring down defeat, Trump attempts a coronavirus reset." I thought the meaning of the phrase "to stare down the barrel of defeat" could apply to this example. Since Trump feared an imminent defeat [in the elections], he attempted a Coronavirus reset. – TBY90 Jul 23 '20 at 20:10
  • @TBY90 There is not a phrase "to stare down the barrel of defeat." (Defeat does not have a barrel): you can 1 stare someone/something down; 2 be staring down the barrel of a gun or 3 stare something in the face. – Greybeard Jul 24 '20 at 8:31

I do not think those phrases are related at all, neither in etymology nor in meaning.

Grammatically, those two phrases use entirely different predicates - in "to stare down defeat", the predicate is the transitive "stare down", while in "to stare down the barrel of a gun", the predicate is the ambitransitive "stare". In other words, the latter phrase does not use "stare down" as a phrasal verb.

This difference, I think, carries over to the meaning - "to stare down defeat" implies a certain degree of haughtiness and defiance that staring someone or something down would, but "to stare down the barrel of a gun" doesn't - it means you're in peril, but it doesn't mean that you're facing this peril calmly and in a calculated way.

They're two separate idioms, and "to stare down the barrel of defeat" seems to be a relatively new (and interestingly UK/Australia-specific based on a quick Google search) combination of them.

  • You're probably correct, but your "answer" is in fact, a comment/opinion. You could firm it up by providing authoritative references. – Greybeard Jul 23 '20 at 16:03

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