The Vocabulary of Murder

Al Pacino and Robert Duvall in The Godfather
Al Pacino and Robert Duvall in The Godfather | Source
Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes
Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes | Source

Killing Our Fair Language

Although I'm not with the Language Police, I am concerned about the high frequency of murder-related words within the English language. A long time ago, an Asian acquaintance remarked that Americans appear to be intrigued by murder, but did not go into great detail. American English may have had something to do with his cross-cultural observation.

People who spend a lot of time dwelling upon murder soon tire of that word, and look for ways to pep up their lexicons with synonyms, and for ways to be succinct and precise when the need arises. There are several such words in English, and many more in American slang. It would be interesting to compare the length of the English murder-word list with similar lists from other languages.

Here are a few murder-related expressions in standard English: annihilate, assassinate, to dispatch someone, to eliminate someone, ethnic cleansing, to execute someone, exterminate, homicide, kill, to liquidate someone, manslaughter, massacre, to mow down someone, to slay, to take out someone, terminate, and to wipe out. However most surfers 'wipe out' several times in their careers, without getting killed. We also have words for very specific kinds of killing: regicide (to kill a king), fratricide, suicide, etc.

To knock off can be a synonym for murder. However a knock-off can also be a lower-priced copy of an expensive product. For example, my major professor used his gas chromatograph to 'knock off' some expensive perfumes.

Here are a few murderous expressions from American slang: to 86 someone, to deep-six someone, to 'off' someone, and to throw someone under a bus. In the bus metaphor, there are two people who were former allies, and the thrower views the 'throwee' as a political liability.

To "do" someone can be a synonym for murder. To "do someone in" has a similar meaning, but without the double entendre.

To waste someone (1970s American slang) is a synonym for murder. However "wasted" can also mean being seriously intoxicated. Coincidentally, we also have a large vocabulary for that particular physiological state. On the other hand, Russians and Finns are the ones with reputations for being the world-class imbibers. I'm curious: How many words do they have in their languages for inebriation?

Getting back to the subject at hand, what would modern English be without Mafia slang from American movies, like The Godfather trilogy; and from TV series, like The Sopranos? Here are some old as well as current murder expressions from that peculiar genre: to bump off someone, to put out a contract on someone, to ice someone, to rub out someone, and to whack someone. And of course, a hit-man is a professional assassin.

Many years ago, there were a number of tragic incidents in local branches of the US Postal Service. The pattern: An unhinged employee shows up for work, carrying a firearm. He shoots as many of his coworkers as possible, before taking his own life. This gave rise to the American slang expression, "going postal."

There's even a euphemism for murder in literature. Example: Many years ago, British readers were gobsmacked when Arthur Conan-Doyle had apparently "killed off" his fictional character, the great consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. (However in a later story, it was revealed that Holmes had faked his own death.) Why is it that "killing off" is much less shocking to delicate sensibilities than the word "killing" without the modifier?

It would be reasonable for omnivorous people to view vegans as 'cereal killers'. A hiking friend from my college days, Paula McMasters, was so fed-up with Political Correctness, that she embroidered the following message on her chapeau:

"If you like plants, don't eat them!"

Murder words can also be used in less-than--lethal circumstances. Here are few examples.

Rush Hour traffic is murder.

A savvy investor can say: I made a killing on the junk bond market.

It is said that the spreadsheet was the very first 'killer' application of the personal computer era.

Here's my opinion about musician Jose Feliciano: He murders every song that he touches.

You have a friend, a gifted musician, who is performing in public for the first time. Immediately before the concert, you can say: Knock 'em dead!

Victorian-era English writers were famous for their compulsions to find special names for groups of animals. Example: a pod of whales. Given that proclivity, why is it that a flock of ravens qualifies as a parliament, whereas a flock of crows constitutes a "murder"?

Let's not forget some other colorful expressions: killing time, painkiller, and killjoy.

Conundrum of the day: Does a hub about murder vocabulary illustrate the concept of overkill?

I may be out of line for saying this. But the large murder-related vocabulary that we English-speakers have, and the fine distinctions that we make in the taxonomy of murder, suggest that we've become slightly jaded.

Copyright 2011 and 2013 by Larry Fields

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Comments 22 comments

Mel Jay profile image

Mel Jay 5 years ago from Australia

Hi Larry, great concept! Thoroughly enjoyed this, particularly as I am a former criminal prosecutor and I can't help thinking about the legal issues around the word when I ponder it. I notice that the USA produces a bumper crop of TV shows about murder and policing etc every year. I wonder if that is another aspect of the American fascination with murder? I thought it was a 'killer' hub! Voted up and funny from me - Cheers Mel


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 5 years ago from Northern California Author

Hi Mel. Coming from a gifted hub-writer, like yourself, I'm honored by the compliment. I'd been concerned that my warped sense of humor would be a turn-off. Thanks for the validation.

However I'm completely ignorant about Australian television. What do y'all do to fill up the 'murder void' on the telly? More of everything else? Or something uniquely Aussie? When you have time, perhaps you could write a hub about that.


Mel Jay profile image

Mel Jay 5 years ago from Australia

Hi Larry, well it seems that we have many US shows about murders, detectives, police and lawyers and have chucked in a few of our own shows on similar lines - the main difference being that most of our shows focus on the police angle as we do not have the 'DA' model of prosecuting here. We also show a lot of UK productions on this theme. I try not to watch a lot of them, having worked in crime, but they are virtually unavoidable and seem to fill the prime time slots every night. Like America we are also fascinated with home renovation shows, reality TV and talent type productions. It would be interesting to look at it as a comparison at some stage, thanks for the idea - Cheers - Mel


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 5 years ago from Northern California Author

Hi Mel. Thanks for answering my question. If I've understood correctly, American TV, as compared with its Aussie counterpart, as similar, but more so.


carcamping profile image

carcamping 5 years ago

Larry, very enjoyable hub. I am a non-practicing attorney. I really loved the way you put the article together. You could probably add an entire new section just for gang slang such as "pop a cap in his sorry..." or "gank em" or "I am gonna OJ him for stepping out with my lady", etc. This really "slayed" me. Good going!!!


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 5 years ago from Northern California Author

Thanks, carcamping. I'm not current on gangsta vocabulary. Perhaps you could write that hub.


Evan Picard 5 years ago

From an old John Wayne film: "Die like a man, silently Pilgrim."


Evan Picard 5 years ago

--Since no woman in that film was told that it was expected of her to die "Silently," I guess was okay for them to show some human emotion during their final moments alive, thank God!--


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 5 years ago from Northern California Author

Evan, thanks for stopping by.


Babs Spencer 5 years ago

From "Moby Dick" -- "He shot a harpoon into the savage's head and watched it explode like cumquat."


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 5 years ago from Northern California Author

Hi Babs. That's certainly on-topic!


Timmy O'Hare 5 years ago

"I shot an arrow in the air. Where it lands -- and who it kills -- I do not care." - Anonymous


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 5 years ago from Northern California Author

Hi Timmy. Thanks for the contribution to my quiver. *groan* Bad pun!


N. Bates 5 years ago

"'Should I shower now or wait till morning?'she thought to herself."


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 5 years ago from Northern California Author

Here's a little-known fact: Norman Bates was president of the U.S. before Obama took office in 2010. I've never had a former president leave a comment on any of my hubs before.


N. Bates 5 years ago

I don't remember ever being president. Please tell me about it. Mother will be very proud.


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 5 years ago from Northern California Author

Memory issues come with the territory. It's a tradition that Reagan played to the hilt. In case you haven't already heard this famous journalistic conundrum:

What did the president know, and when did he forget it?


N. Bates 5 years ago

Great quote. I'll have to remember that, until I forget it.


Specialist5 profile image

Specialist5 4 years ago from Norwich, CT USA

Very nicely written; love your humor. I'm new to HubPages so I'm reading everything on writing to learn what's out there so I don't duplicate and to learn even more. Love the article.


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 4 years ago from Northern California Author

Hi, Specialist5. Thanks for stopping by.


barbergirl28 profile image

barbergirl28 4 years ago from Hemet, Ca

Wow - isn't that scary how many different ways you can say murder. Or society obviously is obsessed with it. That being said - now can I ask you a favor.... as I continue my journey for NaNoWriMo - which means I am writing a book... can you do another hub but this time help me with all the ways to say "Said"? I tell you - it seems so boring and overused! And I bet it would help millions! :)


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 4 years ago from Northern California Author

Hi barbergirl. Thanks for reading.

Sorry. Aside from the said-synonyms in my online dictionary, I can't think of very many off the top of my head.

While I think of it, an online friend, who's also an attorney, did a NaNoWriMo that combines two of her heretofore unrelated passions: privacy issues and zombies. My understanding is that she's following through, and may eventually publish it in an eBook format.

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