The Grammarphobia Blog

Suspended animation

Q: Has the verb “suspend” morphed into a synonym for “terminate” when I wasn’t looking? Or can I hope that it is just sloppy usage on the part of former candidate Rick Santorum when he stated that he was suspending his campaign?

A: Many other people had the same reaction when Santorum announced last month that he was “suspending” his campaign. Till when? they quipped.

As it turned out, the campaign was dead, not held in suspended animation.

However, Santorum isn’t alone in using “suspend” this way. Unsuccessful political candidates often throw in the towel by saying they’re “suspending” their campaigns.

Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich ended their bids for the GOP presidential nomination the same way. And four years ago Hillary Clinton dropped out of the Democratic race with the same verb.

Why do many presidential candidates prefer to “suspend” their campaigns rather than “terminate” them? There are psychological, political, and financial reasons.

For example, suspending doesn’t sound quite so final as terminating.

And let’s not underestimate the power of wishful thinking. A candidate’s name may still be on the ballot in a few more primaries. Who knows? A miracle could happen at the convention.

In the meantime, debts have to be paid, some expenses have to be met, and a campaign that’s technically still alive can keep raising funds.

But despite the way politicians use the word, the verb “suspend” hasn’t changed its meaning in ordinary usage. It still means more or less what it has meant for 600 years: to temporarily stop or prohibit.

The word isn’t generally meant to imply forever after. The Oxford English Dictionary says that in its earliest sense, recorded around 1290, it meant “to debar, usually for a time, from the exercise of a function or enjoyment of a privilege; esp. to deprive (temporarily) of one’s office.”

Another usage from the same late 13th-century source is defined this way in the OED: “To put a stop to, usually for a time; esp. to bring to a (temporary) stop; to intermit the use or exercise of, put in abeyance.”

The word still has those meanings today, along with some others. For example, in the 15th through 17th centuries, these meanings came into use (all quotes are from the OED):

● “To bring about or entail the temporary cessation of.”

● “To stop or check the action or movement of (something) temporarily; to hold in suspense.”

● “To cause (a law or the like) to be for the time no longer in force; to abrogate or make inoperative temporarily.”

● “To bring about or entail the temporary cessation of” an event, condition, etc.

● “To cease (for a time) from the execution or performance of; to desist or refrain from, esp. temporarily.”

We aren’t counting the meanings that are irrelevant here—to “suspend” (defer or put aside) one’s disbelief or judgment, or to hang something up (like a chandelier).

But the sense of hanging is at the etymological root of “suspend.”

The verb came into English from Old French, but its ultimate source is the Latin suspendere, formed of the prefix sub- plus pendere (to hang). In Latin compounds, sub- (which can mean under, close to, up to, or toward) normally became sus- before a word starting with “p.”

So etymologically, to “suspend” something is to hang it up. And in common usage it generally implies doing so temporarily or for the time being. Standard dictionaries agree with the OED on this point.

By the way, a whole host of words have come down to us from the Latin verb pendere (besides hang, it also meant weigh or pay): “pending,” “append,” “appendix,” “depend,” “dispense,” “expense,” “impending,” “penchant,” “pendant,” “pendulous,” “pendulum,” “penthouse,” “perpendicular,” “spend,” and others.

With that, we’ll suspend our blogging for the day.

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