I saw a post recently by another blogger about stigmatizing language that people should avoid. One of the things he mentioned was “committed suicide,” which is something that comes up regularly in discussions of language use related to suicide. I’m not convinced that it needs to be as big an issue as people make it out be, so I wanted to explore that.
It’s not a term I find offensive, although I know some people do, so I choose not to use it for that reason. However, because it’s a popular target for language policing, it’s been on my radar, and it catches my eye when people use “commit suicide.”
A lot of mental health bloggers (including those who’ve attempted) use the phrasing “committed suicide.”
If people within the community are regularly using the term, is “commit” a word policing battle worth fighting?
The relationship between stigma and language
Language doesn’t produce stigma, although language choices can (and often do) reflect stigma. According to the euphemism treadmill described by Steven Pinker, over time, once-neutral terms pick up the taint of public negative attitudes about whatever the term describes. The now-tainted term is replaced with a new neutral term that means essentially the same thing, but with the passage of time, it too becomes tainted. This process continues as long as the underlying negative attitudes persist.
Mental illness, suicide, bipolar, schizophrenia… all of these terms are accurate descriptors in neutral language, but there is significant stigma attached to all of them. No matter what words people use, or whether they use person-first or identity-first language, the underlying “problem” is still the same. Society is afraid of “crazy” people.
Trying to change language usage in order to reduce stigma may be approaching the issue from the wrong direction; instead, maybe we need to dig deeper into the underlying attitudes and why people are choosing certain language, and help them understand how some of those choices might be problematic.
The concern people raise about “commit suicide” is that it suggests that the person has committed a sin or a crime. When I first heard that, my reaction was, huh? It seemed like an awfully big leap, and certainly not one that had ever crossed my mind before. When I’ve spoken to others who hadn’t previously been told about this connection, the reaction was much the same.
One reason this link isn’t universally apparent is that the word commit is quite versatile, and can have positive, negative, or neutral connotations depending on how it’s used.
To get a clearer picture of this, I turned to the full Oxford English Dictionary (not the free version). The verb “commit” has five different broad meanings.
- To entrust, consign
- To do something wrong; to perpetrate.
- To join.
- To involve, embroil, and related senses.
- To pledge, dedicate, devote.”
The concerns about “commit suicide” fall within the second group of definitions, which includes:
- “9.a. transitive. To carry out (a reprehensible act); to perpetrate (a crime, sin, offence, etc.).
- 9.b. transitive. To make (an error, mistake, etc.); to do (something foolish or careless).
- 10. intransitive. To behave in a reprehensible manner; to offend, sin; esp. to commit adultery or fornication. Obsolete.
- 11. transitive. humorous and ironic. To do (something likened by the speaker to a crime or offence).”
This is the definition for “commit suicide”:
“transitive. to commit suicide: to end one’s own life intentionally; to kill oneself. Also figurative and in extended use. Cf. [cross-reference] sense 9a. Historically, suicide was regarded as a crime in many societies. Laws against suicide existed in English common law until 1961.”
The OED gives examples of usage dating back to 1712. Interestingly, there’s a 1774 use in a newspaper referring to a political party committing suicide in a figurative sense.
How do people interpret “committed suicide”?
So, this term has been around for about 300 years, and political suicide has been talked about almost as long. The word commit has many different meanings, not all of which are negative. My guess would be that the average person who is my generation (Gen X) or younger doesn’t know that suicide used to be illegal; Joe and Jane Doofus simply aren’t that knowledgeable about history. Granted, there are still a few countries where attempting suicide is illegal, but they’ve got far bigger problems than just the choice of wording.
While the criminality link may seem obvious for advocates who have become attached to it, that doesn’t mean that the general public sees that link, or even that the link is subtly implied to people through the wording “commit suicide.” I suspect that even if you fished for it, the average person wouldn’t be able to identify why “committed suicide” is considered unacceptable. If, in the average person’s mind, “commit suicide” doesn’t have connotations that are any different from “died by suicide,” how it is useful to try to convince them that it does? Isn’t that trying to talk them into a stigmatized belief that they probably don’t have?
Common stigmatized beliefs around suicide
I previously wrote about the results of an Australian study on suicide stigma. The ten most common stigmatized views endorsed were that someone who suicides is:
- punishing others
Immoral came in at number 27, and evil was in last place at number 31 for stigmatized beliefs.
If the most common stigmatized beliefs have nothing at all to do with sin and criminality, is it useful to focus on wording that’s thought to link to sin/criminality? My biggest concern regarding suicide prevention is addressing the beliefs that suicide is selfish or that people who attempt should feel guilty about causing hurt to others. For those issues, it’s unlikely to matter whether we talk about committing suicide or dying by suicide, because the negative judgments are still there.
Other suicide word policing targets
While “committed suicide” seems to be the most common and most agreed-upon target for word policing, there are a variety of other ways of talking about suicide that some people disapprove of. Some people don’t like suicide to be used as a verb (e.g. “he suicided”). Various sources tell people not to talk about successful suicides or failed suicide attempts, as this is seen as suggesting that suicide is a good thing.
I came across a post on Speaking of Suicide that talked about suicide-related language. Specifically, it addressed the phrases committed suicide, completed suicide, and died by suicide.& The author argued against the use of the phrase “completed suicide”. Part of her justification was that completing something has positive connotations linked to accomplishment, while incomplete has negative connotations.
If the author believes that the word “completed” has inappropriately positive connotations, it seems to me like that’s her concern, not mine. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, synonyms of completed include: concluded, done, ended, finished, over, and terminated. Sounds about right to me.
The Speaking of Suicide article linked to the Maine Suicide Prevention Program site (note: no longer available), which states that the phrase completed suicide perpetuates stigma and implies that the person has made a previous attempt, whether or not they actually have. That’s a pretty large leap. And how does it perpetuate stigma? I’m honestly not seeing the connection there.
People don’t like being told what to do, especially when they perceive it as a threat to their freedom. This pushback is reactance, and it can happen even when the thing people are being told to do (like wear masks) is a good thing.
There’s also the issue that if people hadn’t made the suicide=criminal link before, they will after you’ve told them about it, which probably isn’t desirable. I’m not suggesting that anyone should start embracing the term, but just because you have certain connotations attached to a term doesn’t mean that other people have those same connotations.
The way I look at it, we only have so much room to push for language change before people push back and deride it as political correctness and it all becomes a bit of a waste of time. So yes, we need effective media reporting on suicide, and we absolutely need to address the stigma around suicide. But when you start to nitpick, there’s the risk of ending up with entirely the opposite of the desired result.
We need more conversations, not fewer
We’re all going to have our own personal language preferences, and it seems unlikely that everyone will come to an agreement on what words to use when it comes to suicide. That’s okay, though. We don’t all have to talk about it the same way. What matters is that we speak up. We need to talk more about suicide, and trying to constrain people’s words may end up shutting down conversations.
Whether we talk about someone completing suicide, dying by suicide, or whatever you want to call it, the stigma is still there. To actually chip away at the stigma we need to get busy talking openly about suicide. Nitpicking over suicide-related language can trigger reactance, but it can also end up distracting from the real problem. It doesn’t change the fact that people are going into emergency rooms feeling suicidal and getting turned away because sorry, they’re just not suicidal enough. So let’s focus our attention where it belongs and ease up a little on the language policing.
The Straight Talk on Suicide page has crisis and safety planning resources, along with info on suicide-related topics from the perspective of someone who’s been there.