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Lock horns

Reader question:

Please explain this headline – Gates unafraid to lock horns with top generals (USAToday.com, April 5, 2010) – and particularly “lock horns”.

My comments:

It means to say that Gates, Robert Gates the US Defense Secretary, is not afraid to get into a fight with the military’s top officers.

Verbally, of course, not one involving fists.

Or horns for that matter – they don’t have them to begin with anyway.

Horns, you see, are the hardened, pointed, hook-like and bone-like growths on the head of cows, deer, goats and other grass eating animals. The horns of these herbivores are used as weapons in fighting over mating rights or self-defense because they don’t have the sharp teeth of a carnivore, the meat eater such as a tiger or a lion.

Deprived of their teeth, they use their head instead. Gates and the army generals use their head, too, in argument, but that’s just a metaphor, an entirely different matter. Herbivores, you see, are literally banging their heads against each other in their fight, and that’s when they “lock horns” with each other. If you’ve ever observed two goats fighting each other, you’ll be able to understand perfectly what “locking horns” is all about. If one animal is significantly larger in size and bigger in strength, the fight may be over in an instant, with the loser running off tucking its tail between its trembling legs. However, when two goats are equal in strength, the fight can be long and bloody, and their horns can get tangled – “locked” into one another – for minutes at a time as each tries to push the other off. And as they’re similar in strength, each is able to stand their ground...

Hence, the term locking horns.

Metaphorically therefore, if you describe people as locking horns with each other, you want to suggest that they’re in for a big, tenacious, bare-fisted (again, metaphorically speaking) and preferably long lasting battle or argument.

Otherwise, they probably don’t deserve such a good metaphor.

Alright, here are recent media examples:

1. Apple looks to be preparing to launch its own mobile advertising service on April 7 dubbed iAd, according to MediaPost. If so, the announcement will come only days after the iPad launch, and could put Apple in competition with Google in yet another market.

It appears that the iAd service will be based on Quattro’s technology — an online ad company that Apple purchased at the beginning of 2010. Sources familiar with the service have said that Apple CEO Steve Jobs is calling iAd “revolutionary,” and “our next big thing.”

The service would make it easier for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad developers to place advertisements in their applications, but would put Apple in direct competition with Google for mobile device advertising dollars. Google recently purchased AdMob, a Quattro competitor, presumably to boost its own ability to serve ads to mobile devices.

The two companies have already locked horns over the iPhone and Google’s Android platform for smart phones, and if Apple moves into the mobile ad market, it could ad more tension to what appears to be an already strained relationship.

Apple is sticking to its standard policy of not commenting on unannounced products and services.

- Apple May be Prepping iAd Mobile Ad Service, Macobserver.com, March 27, 2010.

2. Human beings are social animals that evolved in small social groups. Our brains are adapted, through the processes of evolution, to pick up many of the signals that indicate the position of an individual within the group. Often we pick up these signals unconsciously – and very quickly – but this can have a profound effect upon our social judgments. In the animal kingdom, the leader is open to (sometimes violent) challenge. And the rest of us gaze on, watching the battle, drawn to the emerging victor in ways that we barely understand. This is what made the leadership debates so fascinating; it was the sheer primitiveness of the whole thing. Evolution meets technology here in our living rooms.

We have all seen Cameron taking on Brown at the dispatch box during Prime Minister’s Questions, but this often has the feeling of political theatre, or panto, with booing, jeering and so on. But the televised leaders’ debates were always going to be different. It was stags locking horns in a battle to the political death, with the rest of the herd deathly quiet.

Brown had the square jaw, and the low furrowed brow, in other words, with some of the right physiognomic attributes for the role of dominant male, regardless of how attractive we find these features. Then, there was Cameron and Clegg, much more boyish looking, not such square jaws, but not weak either, higher eyebrows, much weaker primitive signals when it comes to being dominant.