- Books, Literature, and Writing
The Vocabulary of Murder
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