The Grammarphobia Blog

Wounded spirits

Q: A radio reporter recently referred to 50,000 people who’d been “wounded” in the China earthquake last May. Shouldn’t that be “injured”? I’ve always used this rule of thumb: “wounds” are inflicted, as in battle; “injuries” are the result of accidents or natural calamities. Do I have it right?

A: I generally agree with you, and I follow a similar rule of thumb. But the distinction between the verbs “injure” and “wound” (as well as the past participles “injured” and “wounded”) is fuzzier in modern English than we believe.

Of the two verbs, “wound” is by far the older, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. When it first showed up in Old English around the year 760, it meant to “inflict a wound on (a person, the body, etc.) by means of a weapon; to injure intentionally in such a way as to cut or tear the flesh.”

When the verb “injure” first showed up in English in the late 16th century, it meant merely to “do injustice or wrong to (a person),” according to the OED. No physical injury here. The verb is what’s known as a back-formation, in this case formed from the older noun “injury.” It’s ultimately derived from the Latin injurius, or unjust.

In modern English, both “injure” and “wound” can mean, among other things, to cause physical harm to someone, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Neither dictionary insists that a wound has to be deliberately inflicted while an injury must be the result of an accident or natural causes. But that’s the way I generally use the two words, and that’s the way I see them used most of the time.

While we’re on the subject of “wound” vs. “injury,” you may be interested in a related blog item last year about the word “casualty.”

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