The Grammarphobia Blog

Casualties of war

Q: Often I notice war commentators using the term “casualty” to mean a fatality. The word should refer to someone who is killed, injured, or taken prisoner, not just a fatality. Am I missing something?

A: When it first came into English, in the early 1400s, “casualty” meant chance or accident (the fuller form was “casuality”). By the late 1400s, it was being used to mean a chance occurrence or an accident, especially an unfortunate one.

In recent centuries, “casualty” in the military sense has meant any kind of loss, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED says the word has referred to “losses sustained by a body of men in the field or on service, by death, desertion, etc.” as well as to “an individual killed, wounded, or injured.”

That meaning has survived to the present day, and current dictionaries agree that “casualties” include deaths as well as injuries and other losses.

The entry for “casualty” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, includes this definition: “a military person lost through death, wounds, injury, sickness, internment, or capture or through being missing in action.”

So, you’re right—and, no, you’re not missing something!

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