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hurt locker also hurt-locker

noun [uncountable] informal

a state of intense physical or mental pain

'My lungs were on fire but I was moving! I caught Dave Weins with about 7 miles left and he encouraged me to chase the two guys who where just 30 seconds ahead. I only had one climb left and my body was in the hurt locker.'

Personal Weblog 4th July 2008

'… "Anybody can get hit with a punch if they stick their chin out," he explains, "but I'm a more technical fighter than that. I've been trained with way better strikers than he'll ever be." Hornbuckle's prediction for the re-match is grim. "I'm going to put him in the hurt-locker," he says.'

Bodog Beat 24th November 2007

In early 2010 the American war film The Hurt Locker made a clean sweep at the annual awards ceremonies, winning six Oscars and six BAFTA awards. As well as bagging the award for best film on both sides of the Atlantic, history was made when Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy award for best director. As was the case with slumdog a year earlier, the film's resounding success also had a linguistic by-product – the expression hurt locker, suddenly thrust into the public eye courtesy of the associated media frenzy. But what exactly is a hurt locker?

the phrase hurt locker is used by the US military as slang for serious injury, whatever form that might take

Though the expression is open to a degree of interpretation depending on the context, most sources seem to agree that hurt locker is connected with pain and severe discomfort, either physical or emotional. The phrase is used by the US military as slang for serious injury, whatever form that might take. The expression most commonly appears as part of the phrase be in the hurt locker, i.e.: if you are in the hurt locker, you are seriously injured and thereby incapacitated, either temporarily or permanently. If a bomb goes off or there's a major offensive, then inevitably someone will end up in the hurt locker. Also common is the wider expression put (someone) in the hurt locker, which means to cause someone serious injury.

In 2005, American poet Brian Turner, a veteran of the Iraq war, wrote an award-winning poem also entitled The Hurt Locker, containing emotive stanzas on suicide bombers and snipers.

However further evidence of use exists outside the military context, especially in relation to sport. The use is sometimes parallel: if a person or team is in the hurt locker, they are on the injury bench and unable to play. But there's also a more figurative interpretation relating to any kind of competitive event – the hurt locker can be a metaphorical place someone goes to when they are acutely aware of their lack of success.

Background – hurt locker

Editors of the Oxford English Dictionary claim that the first recorded example of hurt locker dates back to 1966, when it was used by a US newspaper in relation to the Viet Cong, the army that fought the US and South Vietnamese governments during the Vietnam war. The term crossed over from military to sporting contexts, and over time the sporting use became more prevalent. This was the case right up until the Iraq war of 2003, which finally re-kindled the expression's military usage.

The 2009 film has undoubtedly brought hurt locker into wider recognition. Inspiration for the title came from the experiences of Mark Boal, the film's writer, who picked up on the phrase in 2004 during his time as an 'embed' journalist with a bomb disposal unit.

Being hurt is, of course, experiencing physical pain. Locker is thought to be used because it relates both to the place where soldiers keep their things and an enclosed space which can be difficult to escape from.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 30th March 2010.

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