Caution: language change ahead

By Michael Cook and crossposted from Mercatornet.

A group of right-to-die activists is searching for a new word for suicide by conducting an internet poll. They've got their work cut out for them.

The results of the survey, which is being promoted on the website of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies, could be helpful in shaping a better public image for assisted suicide. (Fill in the survey here, if you like.)

The concern is that the word "suicide" is dismal. It evokes nooses, ovens, bullets, insecticide and 20-storey buildings. When Gallup asked people in 2013 if they approved of doctors "end the patient's life by some painless means", 70 percent said Yes. When they asked if they approved of doctors helping patients "to commit suicide", that figure dropped to 51 percent. The word "suicide" radiates the baddest of bad vibes.

To supporters of assisted suicide, a self-chosen but violent death is a symptom of depression, a clinical condition which can often be treated successfully with medication. "This is very different from the situation in which suffering, terminally ill individuals choose to hasten their dying," the survey says. "Such individuals wish to end their life in a peaceful and dignified manner, at home, with family around them. To most people, this is something else, not suicide."

What is this dignified way of shuffling off the mortal coil to be called?

"Hard as it is to believe, the English language has no word for this different kind of dying, this hastening of death. The purpose of this survey is to find out if there might be a word or phrase that can be widely used to denote this different kind of dying."

The survey asks readers what they think of the following terms: self-deliverance, dying with dignity, rational suicide, humane self-chosen death and a freshly-minted euphemism, dignicide.

I don't think that they will succeed.

First, the difference between the nasty sort of suicide and the nice sort is unclear. One of the commonest arguments for assisted suicide is that if a person is denied the opportunity of access to "dignicide", he will hang himself. It seems contradictory to argue that when a person asks for a bottle of Nembutal and a bedside party, he has dignicided. But if the Nembutal isn't available that afternoon and he resorts to a noose, he has suicided. Where does one draw the line?

And what if the "dignicide" goes wrong and the person shudders and gasps for hours in great distress? Is that suicide or "dignicide"? It's not very dignified.

Second, this is not a problem unique to the English language. I suspect that no other language possesses such a term. The Latin root of the English word suicide (sui "of oneself" + caedere "to kill") is a linguistic fig leaf draped over the brutal reality. Other Germanic tongues are not so squeamish. In German, suicide is Selbstmord; in Dutch, zelfmoord, and in Danish, selvmord. Even in Esperanto, which aspires to straddle all European languages, the term is sinmortigo, or "self-killing". The real problem is inventing a concept, which is infinitely more difficult than inventing a word.

Third, some of the terms are too broad. What about suffering people who die a natural death surrounded by loved ones at a time not of their choosing? Aren't they dying with dignity, too? Instead of greater linguistic precision, we have less.

Fourth, it's bad public relations. The last refuge of a scoundrel is not patriotism, as Dr Johnson averred, but euphemism. Death is hard, so killing people sounds best when it is swaddled in linguistic bubblewrap: ethnic cleansing for massacres; the final solution for genocide; shake 'n bake for intense bombardment and white phosphorus. Suicide is straightforward; assisted suicide is straightforward. Words culled from Hallmark greeting cards and funeral parlour brochures are not. Nothing tarnished the image of American foreign policy than euphemisms like "enhanced interrogation" or "collateral damage". They weren't not just deceptive; they were laughable and that was even more damaging.

Fifth, it opens the right-to-die movement to allegations that it is attempting an Orwellian take-over of the language. When the lexicrats of 1984's Oceania created new words, these "not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them." Self-deliverance, dying with dignity and their fellow euphemisms are all surrounded with a fuzzy halo of positivity. Using them is a political choice, not a quest for scientific precision.

However, after mulling over the proposed words, I must say that "dignicide" has some merit. This coinage means not death with dignity, but the death of dignity - which is exactly what assisted suicide is. Go for it, guys!

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.