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Mind your language

Should ‘suicide’ mean pig-killing?

And is that why Samuel Johnson left it out of his dictionary

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

There was a marvellous man in Shakespeare’s day known as John Smyth the Sebaptist. ‘In an act so deeply shocking as to be denied by Baptist historians for two and a half centuries,’ Stephen Wright, the expert on separatist clergy wrote, ‘he rebaptised first himself and then his followers, and set out his new views in The Character of the Beast (1610).’ His former confederate Richard Bernard fired a counterblast in that year showing (to his own satisfaction) that ‘the Church of England is Apostolicall, the Separation Schismaticall’.

Reading a word like sebaptist we take the prefix se- to indicate a reflexive act, a self-baptism, as we would if reading French or Spanish. But that is not how ancient Romans used se-. The learned Peter Jones tipped me off on this. In classical Latin, the prefix se- meant ‘without’ or ‘apart’: thus securus, ‘secure’, from se cura, ‘without care’; separare, from se parare, ‘to prepare apart’ — hence schismaticall separation.

Those 1970s characters who seduced a secretary ‘led apart, or astray’ (seducere) the person concerned with business of theirs that was secretum ‘a secret’ (secernere, ‘to separate’ again).

So none of these words is about doing something to yourself, and still less is suicide. I’ve often seen it said that, by the rules of Latin word-formation, suicide should properly mean ‘pig killing’ (from sus, suis, ‘a swine’), and now I think I’ve run down the man who first made the remark, Edward Phillips, compiler of a dictionary, The New World of Words (1658), much of it plundered from Thomas Blount’s Glossographia (1656). Blount had happily included suicide, ‘the slaying or murdering of himself’. Phillips took the chance to call it ‘a word I had rather be derived from sus, a sow, than from the pronoun sui, unless there be some mystery in it; as if it were a swinish part for a man to kill himself’.

The word’s irregular form no doubt influenced Samuel Johnson’s decision not to put it in his Dictionary (1755). It does, however, appear in William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, written a decade later with a great deal of help from Johnson. Suicide was a useful word to the law and outlived disapproval.

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