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Senator Orrin Hatch and the Origin of ‘Shooting One’s Wad’

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), one of the oldest living fossils in Congress, is done with the Obamacare debate and wants to move on to something with real sizzle: tax reform. “We’re not going back to health care. We’re in tax now,” Hatch told Politico. “As far as I’m concerned, they shot their wad on healthcare and that’s the way it is. I’m sick of it.”

Wait a minute… “Shot their wad.” What does this phrase mean? If you’re under the age of 83, you may recognize it as a euphemism for male orgasm — fitting, given the GOP’s fragile masculinity — and a quick porn search confirms this usage, coeval with “to shoot (or blow) one’s load.”

The verb offers a sly exaggeration of the momentum and trajectory of semen as it departs the penis; the nouns describe this pulse of jizz as a condensed and singular quantity. Once the wad (or load) is shot, there’s no getting it back, and there’s nothing left in reserve. Hence the close link between shooting one’s wad and the anxiety of premature ejaculation: The key to proper wad-shooting is a disciplined patience.

So Hatch’s metaphor was, if crude, totally appropriate to the feckless Republicans in power, who have squandered whatever dregs of political capital they had at the outset of 2017. But once Twitter started cackling about the senator’s sexual terminology, his office tried to wrest control of the narrative with help from the Oxford English Dictionary.

While it’s admirably on-brand for a congressman who accepts thousands in donations from the NRA to pull the “Actually, I Was Talking About Guns” card, there are a couple of slight wrinkles here. For one thing, today’s firearms don’t require wads, and those who read Hatch’s comments are not obligated to assume anachronistic meaning, even if he is a cursed old skeleton covered in cheap silly putty. Second, there appears to be confusion over the result of shooting a wad. In the OED’s understanding of the more current colloquialism, to shoot one’s wad is “to do or say what one can” — which is to say that one has done something, however limited in scope. But when a Washington Post reader wrote a letter chastising the newspaper for printing this “vulgarity,” the editors informed her of the military etymology and got deeper into mechanical detail.

In weaponry ranging from a Napoleonic cannon to a modern shotgun, a paper, fiber or plastic wad is used to separate the projectile from the propellant. “Shooting one’s wad” simply means that the charge contains no projectile and is therefore ineffectual.

Given this interpretation, shooting a wad is perhaps more akin to “shooting blanks,” as we say of post-vasectomy men. This brings us to the problem of a wad’s purpose, at least in the sexual idiom. Has a wad only fulfilled its duty if it successfully delivers the projectile, thereby killing an enemy soldier or impregnating a partner? Or is a wad shot for wad’s sake, without a charge, its own measure of finite effort? To normal people, who bang for fun, the latter rings true. For conservatives who believe all sexual behavior should derive from intent to procreate (Hatch wants to outlaw pornography, just FYI), it is the colonial-era musket-speak that makes the most sense. Go figure.

Finally, then, we must consider whether the GOP did indeed “shoot their wad” on the attempted repeal of Obamacare, and what that means for Congress going forward. Shockingly, that drama does square well with Civil War ballistics: If the Senate’s vote to open floor debate on new health care legislation was the wad, and the unpopular bills proposed represent a lack of ammunition, then Republicans clearly shot their wad in the “ineffectual” sense defined by the Post editors. However, it seems no less accurate to characterize the debate vote itself as the shooting of a wad, in the carnal expression: a rush of pleasure that came too soon, and for no reason other than self-gratification. In both cases, of course, the party can theoretically “reload” and take aim at the tax code.

But, this being the internet, the hornier option is always elevated over an equal truth. Hatch also lost face by allowing his people to push back on the etymology here, as much as they tried to be cute about it — and by going the historical route, they failed to foreground more innocent up-to-date translations, including “to spend all one’s money.”

That’s the confusing thing about America: You can never tell if we’re talking about dicks or guns. Probably, and this is just an educated guess, because we’ve made one a symbol for the other? Maybe, if some people stopped fetishizing firepower, we’d be able to listen to the government’s dusty war jargon and not hear all those Freudian echoes. Till then, I’m afraid we’re stuck in a world where Senator Hatch could feasibly claim that “busting a nut” is slang from the First Crusade for “cracking a heathen’s skull in twain.”