The Boston Globe had a story recently about people being honored for saving a woman from being murdered by her husband with butcher knife. They did a dangerous and brave thing, but that's not what struck me.
It was "butcher knife". This what might be called a "headline signifier": that is, something, probably not accurate, that catches the reader's eye and conveys the meaning, rather than the actually reality, of events.
Most people do not have anything called a "butcher knife" in their home, mostly because no one butchers meat at home. But saying someone was attacked with a "utility knife" or a "chef's knife" would seem to be minimizing the risk, while at the same time being inappropriately finicky about terminology.
We accept this, though, I admit, I always think "well, what kind of knife was it?" When someone attacks someone else with an item found in the kitchen, do they grab the boning knife or the santoku? A writer's mind wants to know.
Related (albeit distantly) to this is the event, found in even sober history books, of someone being "torn limb from limb" by a mob. Or, even more dramatically, "torn to pieces".
Maybe this literally happened. But seeing these phrases in place of the more mundane "killed by an angry mob" makes me wonder what actually did occur. The medieval and early modern practice of "quartering" usually involved cutting the body into parts with (wait for it) a butcher knife, or, in French style, attaching horses to to the limbs in a coordinated effort. The human body is pretty well constructed. Beating someone to death and tearing a few pieces off (what I presume is what usually happened when someone was attacked by a mob) is relatively easy, the other things relatively hard, particularly with a tightly packed group of people who probably can't move freely to begin with.
This is actually sounding kind of gruesome. But "torn limb from limb" is a seemingly meaningful description that raises a number of questions when you think about it. I'm not currently planning to describe the death of a character at the hands of a mob, but if I do, I'd like to get it right. Where should I turn?