Stilettoed on the balcony

The killing of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri by a targeted U.S. drone strike (taking him down as he stood on a balcony) over the weekend in Afghanistan was described by an MSNBC commentator yesterday morning as

a stiletto strike:  with the N1 + N2 compound N stiletto strike ‘sudden (military) attack resembling a stiletto (in being very narrowly focused lethal weaponry)’; the sense of the N2 strike here is NOAD‘s 2 [a] a sudden attack, typically a military one

Possibly it was stiletto airstrike; it went by very fast, I haven’t seen another broadcast of it, and it’s not yet available on-line, so I can’t check — but I am sure of the N stiletto and the N strike and the intent of the commentator to commend the pinpoint accuracy of the operation.

It seems that the metaphor has been used occasionally in military circles for some years, but very rarely outside these circles, so that it came with the vividness of a fresh, rather than conventional, metaphor — but while it worked well for me (evoking the slim, pointed, lethal daggers of assassins), it might not have been so effective with others, whose mental image of a stiletto is the heel of a fashionable women’s shoe (slim and pointed,  but alluring rather than lethal).

Yes, the two senses (plus a few others that I won’t discuss here) are historically related, with the dagger sense the older and, in a series of steps, the source of the shoe sense. But of course ordinary speakers don’t know that, nor should they be expected to (such information is the province of specialists, historical linguists and lexicographers); what they know is how stiletto is used in their social world, and that’s likely to involve trendy footwear rather than medieval weaponry.

Two families of senses. Well, actually, two distinct families of lexical items (each with a collection of senses), one having to do with weapons (dagger N stiletto), the other with footwear (shoe N stiletto). In the actual course of events, al-Zawahiri was stilettoed on the balcony, in a metaphorical use of V stiletto ‘stab with a stiletto’ (in a passive construction) — this V stiletto being a verbing of the dagger N. As in the cover of this 2015 ebook by Donahue B. Silvis:


Entertainingly, al-Zawahiri could have been stilettoed on that balcony by appearing there in footwear with stiletto heels, a fabulous scene reportable with the descriptive Adj stilettoed ‘wearing stiletto heels’ — this Adj derived from the shoe N by suffixation with –ed. As in this photo of Celine Dion in the Elle Magazine of June 2019:

(#2) Celine Dion: jumpsuit by Armani Privé, necklace by Bulgari, stiletto sandals by René Caovilla (photo by Tom Munro); note that Dion is necklaced, jumpsuited, and stilettoed (cf. a stilettoed al-Zawahiri)

[Note on the N > Adj derivational suffix here. From Michael Quinion’s Affixes site on –ed1 ‘having; possessing; affected by; characteristic of’:

These adjectives are formed from nouns; a few examples of a large group are: cultured, diseased, flowered, grained, hooded, jagged, jaundiced, knotted, leisured, matted, ragged, ridged, scented, talented, toothed. In principle, most nouns can add ‑ed in this way to create new adjectives: architected, liposuctioned, polymered, touristed.

In contrast with –ed2 (the PSP of a V) serving as a modifier, as in a fallen tree, some cut flowers, the murdered man.]

The things, up close.

The dagger stiletto. From the Darksword Armory site (offering modern versions of medieval armory), under the header “Medieval daggers: stiletto”:

(#3) [ad copy:] The stylet or stiletto is the smallest of daggers, easily concealed, lightest in weight, with a strong triangular sectional blade. The dimensions of the stilettos made these daggers a favorite among assassins. The dagger was easy to conceal, enabling assassins to follow their would be victims at close range without being spotted. This stiletto is a reproduction from one on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The total length is 13 inches. ($80)

The crucial characteristics for stilettos in the stiletto strike metaphor are that they’re slim and relatively short (hence compact) and pointed (hence sharp and potentially lethal).

The lexical neighborhood of dagger stiletto, from Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, 3rd ed., under “synonyms for dagger”:

anlace, bayonet, blade, bodkin, cutlass, dirk, poniard, sidearm, skean, stiletto, stylet, switchblade, sword

Mostly historical, but also some modern weapons with blades. A net search for stilettos as weapons brings up tons of “automatic stilettos”, “push button stilettos”, or “spring assisted stilettos” — switchblade stilettos that fold up and have a button release.

The shoe stiletto. From an earlier posting on this blog:

(#4) Identità pointed toe ankle boot in genuine leather with internal zip and 100mm stiletto heel [AZ: it also comes with an, omigod, 120mm heel], $450.20

The words and their meanings. The history of the dagger N stiletto and the shoe N stiletto. Boiling down material from NOAD (which attempts to arrange its entries with the most common senses / uses first) and OED2 (currently in revision) (which attempts to order the sections of its entries on resolutely historical principles):

— we start with the dagger N, borrowed from Italian (first English cite in 1611), which quickly develops a variety of metaphorical uses, turning on the stiletto’s uses as a weapon, capable of inflicting harm

— then a metaphorical use for a very narrow, long heel of a woman’s shoe, exploiting the visual similarity of such a heel to the dagger; this yields the shoe N, but only in the compound stiletto heel (1st OED cite in 1931)

— by metonymy, stiletto heel used for a shoe with a stiletto heel (no reliable dating from the OED‘s sparse citations)

— separately, the beheading of stiletto heel referring to a kind of heel, giving the truncated stiletto, with the same meaning (again not easily datable)

— and of course the beheaded stiletto used for a shoe with stiletto heel; the metonymy (an extension in meaning) and the beheading (an extension in form) seem to have happened rapidly, since the OED has a cite from 1953 (below) showing the two together

— then, in the compound stiletto strike, the fresh metaphor based on dagger N that I started with above — a use of stiletto that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere

No doubt the beheaded stiletto ‘stiletto strike’ is soon to come, in describing military operations, in things like:

We’re going to do / perform / complete / … a stiletto on a top Taliban leader this weekend.

From the dictionaries. First, from NOAD:

noun stiletto: 1 [a] a woman’s shoe with a thin, high tapering heel. [b] (also stiletto heel) a heel on such a woman’s shoe: [as modifier]:  the rapid click of stiletto heels on pavement. 2 [a] a short dagger with a tapering blade. [b] a sharp-pointed tool for making eyelet holes. ORIGIN early 17th century: from Italian, diminutive of stilo ‘dagger’.

And then from OED2 (in revision):

— 1. a. A short dagger with a blade thick in proportion to its breadth. [1st cite 1611]

— b. In extended use. [metaphorical; 1st cite 1673 Andrew Marvell: Your whole Book of Ecclesiastical Politie having been Writ not with a Pen but a Stilletto.]

— 2. … b. Short for stiletto heel [1st cite 1953 OH newspaper ad: The Italian idea in fashion … Florentine stilettos … The slender fabric shoe, poised on a slim dagger of a heel.]

— Compounds C3. stiletto heel  n. a very narrow, high heel on women’s shoes, fashionable esp. in the 1950s; a shoe with such a heel. [1st cite 1931, in an IN newspaper]



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