Following the mass shootings at El Paso and Dayton in early August, news outlets kept reporting some version of the following:
“PRESIDENT SAYS THERE’S AN APPETITE FOR GUN CONTROL”
I also learned, upon further research, that the President had previously stated on various occasions that “there is no political appetite for gun control.”
Whenever we start to see a word circulating in this way, we know that means it is doing something for our collective imaginary.
The current English word that we know as “appetite,” according to Google etymology and the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the Old French word apetit (modern appétit), from Latin appetitus ‘desire for’, from appetere ‘seek after’, from ad- ‘to’ + petere ‘seek.’
That’s not surprising. An “appetite” for gun control means there’s a desire for gun control. Or people are seeking gun control. We already knew that. So why the word appetite specifically?
Well, looking at the word “appetite,” you’ll notice another word embedded within: “petite,” as in “small, diminutive in size,” from the late 18th century: French, feminine of petit ‘small’.
Now these words “appetite” and “petite” don’t have any kind of direct relationship but by using the word “appetite” to describe the collective feelings we have in the U.S. around gun control, the President associated the “desire” with the “small.” By saying, “there’s an appetite for gun control,” we are essentially saying, “there is a small desire” for gun control.
Therefore, the word appetite can allow those in high visibility positions following shootings who do not believe in gun control, like the President, to acknowledge the severity and devastation of the tragedy, as they must do according to the ethical social norms that we haven’t managed to throw out the window since 2016, without giving any more credence to the call for, desire for, demand for, passion for, gun control and all the lives that it would, by most credible research measures, save.
Of course, the slippage in the word “appetite” is what haunts its use by the President. Historically, appetite has been a very specific kind of word that means not simply a “desire for” but an especially thoughtful and deep desire for. When someone says they have an “appetite” it isn’t simply the same thing as saying “I want stuff.” Wanting is brute, aggressive, uncontrolled. Appetite is specific, nuanced; it implies taste and thoughtfulness. The President, for example, is a person of desires, not a person of appetite.
But we don’t use the word “appetite” very often anymore so that competing set of rhetorical associations isn’t going to have as much hold in the public imagination as the association with the word “petite.” As we see from the Google NGram Viewer, the word “appetite” has fallen off in usage in recent years.
Trump won the rhetorical battle of this particular moment by bringing the “small” baggage to the game. However, there is slippage available for exploitation by gun control activists in the word “appetite.” The President has, essentially, committed himself to the statement that there is a tasteful, collective, and nuanced desire for gun control, which is then implicitly contrasted against the brute, careless, blunt desires of the pro-gun lobbyists.
- News & Politics