Watched the 1964 movie Zulu the other week while convalescing from the flu, and for the record if a bunch of Zulu warriors showed up in North America with the intent of colonizing it I’d be only too happy to see an outpost of them massacred. Regardless of how valiant any of the individual Zulus might be, I’d figure if they didn’t want to get killed they should have stayed home in southern Africa. That aside, Zulu is a well-done action film, an interesting depiction of a now-distant era of military history, and striking for its lack of explication. The audience is expected to be familiar with the basics of the Anglo-Zulu war, have a sense of where Natal is, and know what is meant when a British soldier refers to a non-British ally as “Dutchie”. There’d be a lot more hand-holding if the movie were made today, but come to think of it, 1964 was a generation closer to the events in question than now. For my money, Black Hawk Down is a better representative of the rather queasy-making small-white-military-force-holds-out-against-faceless-waves-of-black-Africans mini genre, though Zulu does have Michael Caine in his first starring role, albeit miscast as a prim upper class military officer. If you want to see his megawatt cockney charm unleashed in the service of British imperial nostalgia, you must turn to The Man Who Would be King.
But none of this is the point. The point is that as the British soldiers are fortifying their position for assault, they use their bayonets to carve out holes in the walls of buildings through which to shoot, and they call these things “loopholes”. I found this word jarring, and whenever I heard one character say to another “Help me with this loophole” I thought he was asking for tax advice. When the movie was over I was off to the internet to learn that “loophole” originally meant a hole in a fortification wall for firing out of–first for arrows and later for rifles. The “legal technicality” sense that I was familiar with came afterwards, and, in my idiolect at least, is an interesting example of metaphorical backformation.
The grounding of the legal metaphor lies in the morpheme “hole”: a legal code is a wall and a loophole is a hole in that wall. The metaphor doesn’t exactly line up because the rifle hole serves the defenders of the wall, while the legal loophole serves its attackers, but they share the notion that a small gap can nevertheless be potent. The “loop” part doesn’t add anything. It comes from Middle English “loupe” which just means “opening in a wall”. (So a loophole is a “hole-hole”.) I didn’t know anything about the military underpinnings of the legal metaphor, so for me “loop” was the key. “Hole” still meant hole, but that wasn’t the main point. A loophole occurs when a legal document has grown so confusing that its own complexity can be turned against it. The “loop” morpheme here taps into the rich vein of circle-as-confusion metaphors: double-talk, turned around, circumlocution, talking in circles. (Why are circles confusing?–I guess because we walk in circles when we’re lost in the woods.) A confusion-hole instead of a chink in the armor. The metaphor is particularly tasty because the word “loop” never gets used elsewhere in this metaphorical sense but the geometric similarity makes this an easy gap to leap.
I think of this as a semantic eggcorn. My sense of the metaphor “loophole” is plausible and gets at an interesting angle of the meaning, but is nevertheless etymologically wrong. I wonder if there are others.