Verbal Energy

A bit of newspeak we wish would go away

To say simply that someone 'was disappeared' when he really was abducted, tortured, and killed is to accept the language of the police states that carry out such actions.

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The distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs isn't usually the stuff of polite luncheon conversation. It's more the kind of thing that copy editors discuss when they're reasonably sure others aren't listening. And so when I heard a fellow guest at a recent social gathering remark about "disappear" being used transitively, my ears pricked up.

For those whose day job this stuff is not: A transitive verb has a direct object of its action; an intransitive verb does not. Thus, in the sentence "She sang the song," the verb, "sang," is transitive, because "she" acts on the song by singing it. But in "She sang beautifully," the verb is intransitive; she's simply singing.

Individual verbs often start out as one type and then evolve into the other meaning as well. For instance, "We launch our new product Monday" morphs into "The new product launches Monday," although the latter usage is not supported by the dictionary – yet.

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But the significance of disappear used transitively is an issue of a different order. It's not just a matter of a grammarian's quibble. It's more like Orwellian "newspeak." To say simply that someone "was disappeared" when he really was abducted, tortured, and killed is to accept the language of the police states that carry out such actions.

The military regime that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983 "disappeared" thousands of people – 13,000, according to an official toll, but more like 30,000 people, according to human rights groups. Chile, under Augusto Pinochet, was found to have "disappeared" more than 2,000 people. Colombia's "disappearances" have numbered in the thousands: 28,000, according to a recent report.

These places have seen considerable human rights progress, but other states continue these "disappearing" acts, notably China, Pakistan, and Russia.

"Disappearing" reminds me of "ethnic cleansing." This phrase entered our vocabulary during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, when Yugoslavia broke up in the wake of Tito's death and whole districts began to be "purged" of minorities so as to be inhabited "purely" by one group – a ghastly concept of purity. Ethnic cleansing initially seemed like a grotesque bit of euphemism. The Monitor and, presumably, other publications wondered, was that really the term to use? In the end, we used it, albeit with misgivings, because ethnic cleansing was the term people used.

What would be a more honest term for this kind of "disappearance"? Well, how about murder?

Murder sounds like an ancient Germanic word, and it is one. It's related to the "mort" root that shows up in Latin-derived English words like mortal. But murder goes back so far into Old English that it was originally spelled with that d-with-a-stroke-through-it letter that has long since fallen out of English.

The Online Etymology Dictionary has this note on murder: "Viking custom, typical of Germanic, distinguished morð (O.N.) 'secret slaughter,' from vig (O.N.) 'slaying.' The former involved concealment, or slaying a man by night or when asleep, and was a heinous crime. The latter was not a disgrace, if the killer acknowledged his deed, but he was subject to vengeance or demand for compensation."

"Secret slaughter" is exactly what all those juntas and police states over the years have been after. After all, their victims didn't disappear on their own. Someone made them vanish.

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