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What is a 'hurt locker'?

Still from The Hurt Locker

The Magazine answers...

A hurt locker doesn't sound like it is a good thing, but what does the phrase that has found common currency in a multi-Oscar-winning film actually mean?

With six Oscars to its name, the film The Hurt Locker is the toast of Hollywood. But what of the name itself? There's much speculation on the internet about the origins of the phrase, so what is a hurt locker?

Earliest example from Big Spring Daily Herald, Feb 1966
Used in figurative sense for Viet Cong being in a bad way
Used in 1990s mainly in sporting capacity

The press pack for Kathyrn Bigelow's film claims "hurt locker" is GI slang for severe injury. But the film's writer, who picked up on the phrase during his time as an embedded journalist with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in 2004, is rather more vague in his definition.

"If a bomb goes off, you're going to be in the hurt locker. That's how they used it in Baghdad," Mark Boal told the New Yorker. "It means slightly different things to different people, but all the definitions point to the same idea. It's somewhere you don't want to be."

Although American sports writers have used the phrase for at least two decades - to refer to injured players, or a team languishing in the league - the Oxford English Dictionary's first recorded example dates from 1966, says Fiona McPherson, senior editor of the OED's new words group.

"It's from a Texas newspaper and it says 'If an army marches on its stomach, Old Charlie is in the hurt locker'. Old Charlie is the Viet Cong. It is similar to the phrases 'world of hurt' or 'world of pain'.

1996, St Petersburg Times (Florida): '[S]ales of women's apparel have been in a competitive hurt locker for the past four years'
2001, AP News, LAPD a decade on from Rodney King: 'Right now they're in the hurt locker. Healing takes a long time'
2002, Globe and Mail (Canada): 'We're gonna find ourselves in the middle of Baghdad,' one of the officers told me, 'and realize we're in a hurt locker'

"'Hurt' used adjectivally means something which causes suffering. As for 'locker', it's not only what soldiers keep their kit in, it's an enclosed space which can be hard to get out of."

But this piece of military slang has given a title to a poem about the Iraq invasion as well. In 2005, soldier-poet Brian Turner published Here, Bullet, a well-received collection of poems penned during his 11-month tour of duty in 2003-4. Among these was The Hurt Locker, which begins with the line "Nothing but hurt left here" and contains spare, sad stanzas on suicide bombers and snipers. "Open the hurt locker and learn/how rough men come hunting for souls."

Injury bench

Until the second Iraq war, in 2003, use of the phrase in the mainstream media has tended to be in a sporting, rather than military, context. In 2000, the skipper of AmericaOne was quoted in the Washington Post talking to his crew about their dispirited rivals in the America's Cup yacht race: "There's a world of hurt on that boat. That's a hurt-locker over there."

Prada and AmericaOne in 2000 America's Cup yacht race
A "world of hurt" on the yacht Prada

The San Francisco Chronicle reported in 1991 on the Stanford basketball team's lack of success. The coach complained: "If we go 0-2 this week, we're definitely in the hurt locker".

And in 1993, USA Today used the phrase to refer to NFL players on the injury bench, and the Boston Herald used it in reference to a former police commissioner recovering from a broken arm suffered while out jogging.

"It's not unusual for something in the military to make the move into sports reporting," says Ms McPherson. "You often hear of footballers being 'midfield generals' or rugby pitches being 'battlefields' or players 'waging war'. Rightly or wrongly the language seems to lend itself well to sports."

Bill Collwill, membership secretary of the Sports Journalists Association, says military terms and analogies are popular in sport reporting. He himself has drawn on the Falklands conflict when England comes up against Argentina in sporting clashes.

Question mark floor plan of BBC Television Centre
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

"It's a contest and there are occasions when you want to use very expressive words. You rack your brains to find the appropriate words to use. I think it would boil down to a person having a military imagination."

And Nick Szczepanik, baseball and American football correspondent for the Times, says war words lend themselves to writing about sport.

"Sport is confrontation. Particularly in international sports, it is war without weapons. We talk about victory and defeat - the ratcheting up of the whole value system. The temptation is to reach for something that makes [sport] more important."

Just as a hatful of Academy Awards will boost box office takings and DVD sales for the film, the phrase "hurt locker" will also see a spike in usage, at least temporarily, says Robert Groves, of Collins Dictionary.


The real Hurt Locker bomb teams

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Telegraph Hurt Locker: why Oscar loved Kathryn Bigelow's film - 9 hrs ago
The Independent Bigelow, Bridges and Bullock are best in show at the Oscars - 17 hrs ago
Times Online Hurt Locker explodes on to the scene to help change Hollywood for ever - 20 hrs ago Lady's Night At Oscars - 26 hrs ago
Channel 4 News Archive: The Hurt Locker - 32 hrs ago

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