Piece (gun)

Shootout at the Golden Corral.

Dear Word Detective: Recently, a member of my circle of friends referred to someone carrying a “peace” around in public. Puzzled, since I had always read the slang for a gun as “piece,” I inquired as to the usage. The story goes, apparently, that “piece” is a corruption of “peace,” originally a shortened name of the Colt Peacemaker. Is there any truth to this? I might think it just as likely that “piece” comes from “piece of hardware” or the like. — Reuben Gann.

I just looked up “Colt Peacemaker” online, and I think your question may have solved a small mystery for me. We live in a very small town, and last summer I was sitting outside our tiny Post Office when an elderly man drove up. He parked, unloaded a rather elaborate walker, and then reached into his car, produced a large revolver that had a very long barrel and looked like something out of a Western, stuck it in an ornate holster mounted on the walker, and toddled off, either making a point or asking for trouble.

In any case, judging from what I saw online, his gun was the very popular modern version of the Colt M1873 Single Action Army Revolver, commonly called the Peacemaker. First introduced in 1873, it was the standard military sidearm in the late 19th century and figured in many colorful episodes in the Old West. But while the Peacemaker played a large role in the history of guns in the US, it is unrelated to that particular slang term for “gun,” which is definitely “piece.”

While “peace” and “piece” are homophones (words that share the same sound), they are completely unrelated in origin. “Peace” first appeared in English in the 12th century, drawn from the Old French “pais,” which in turn came from the Latin “pax” meaning “absence of war or conflict.”

“Piece” appeared in English a bit later, around 1230, also from Old French, and probably ultimately from the post-Classical Latin “pettia,” meaning “fragment” or “parcel of land.” In its most basic sense, “piece” has always meant “a part of a whole” (as in a piece of pie, land, etc.), a thing considered as part of a class or kind (piece of furniture, piece of iron), or a specific example or instance of something (piece of nonsense, piece of writing). “Piece” can also mean “a certain, usually short, distance or period of time” (“a fair piece down the road,” “stay a piece”), one’s opinion expressed to others (“speak your piece”), a coin, or some object used in a board game or gambling.

“Piece” used as a term for a firearm is actually about 300 years older than the Colt Peacemaker, having first appeared around 1575. Initially, “piece” in this sense meant any sort of portable firearm (“He knelt on one knee, and levelled his piece direct at William’s head.” 1870), but current usage restricts the term to handguns (“In this neighborhood, you don’t carry a knife or a piece, you’re dead.” 1956). Interestingly, “piece,” although it’s now slang usually encountered in the context of crime or the underworld, was originally considered standard English (“Captane John Gordoun wes [deadly] wounded with a peece, by one of the Earle of Murray his servants, at his verie first approach.” circa 1656).

“Piece” in the gun sense seems to be a use of the word in its “example of a kind of thing” sense. It may have been adopted because, in an age where arrows, pikes and axes were still common weapons, it served as a general term designating a firearm, of which there were many different kinds at various points. Today “piece” in this sense is euphemistic slang that doesn’t fool anyone who owns a television.

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