The Grammarphobia Blog

A disappearing act

Q: I’m writing about the use of “disappear” in this Huffington Post headline: “How to Disappear the Unemployed (See North Carolina).” What do you make of this post-Argentina transitive use of an intransitive verb?

A: Yes, that usage does recall a dark time in the history of Argentina. Stewart was a foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires during the early days of the conflict that gave us the usage behind that headline.

But before discussing the Huffington Post language, let’s go back a few hundred years to the early days of the verb “disappear,” which was influenced by disparaître, the French verb for disappearing.

When “disappear” entered English back in the early 1500s, it was an intransitive verb, one that doesn’t have a direct object. Here’s an example from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): “She disappear’d, and left me dark.”

But the verb has been used transitively (that is, with an object) since the late 19th century in reference to inanimate objects. Until recently, though, this usage has been rare.

The Oxford English Dictionary has only two isolated examples of the transitive usage.

One is from Chemical News in 1897: “We progressively disappear the faces of the dodecahedron.”

The other is from a 1949 article in American Speech about the lingo of magicians: “The magician may speak of disappearing or vanishing a card.”

But this inanimate use of the verb has had a renaissance in recent years, primarily in techie talk: “disappear the data,” “disappear the ‘run script’ dialogue,” “disappear the mouse cursor,” and so on.

Although the techie usage hasn’t made it into standard dictionaries, another transitive sense of “disappear” showed up in the 1970s and has been accepted by lexicographers as standard English.

This sense of the verb—to “disappear” someone—surfaced in news reports about the Argentine military government’s battle against insurgents and its suppression of dissidents in the 1970s.

The earliest example in the OED is from a 1979 article in the New York Times Magazine about people who vanished after being detained by the Argentine military:

“While Miss Iglesias ‘was disappeared,’ her family’s writ of habeas corpus, filed on her behalf, was rejected by the courts.”

The recent incarnation of “disappear” on the Huffington Post website represents a milder, more figurative form of the Argentine-inspired usage.

It appeared above a July 10, 2013, article by George Wentworth about states where unemployment programs are under attack. Wentworth, an attorney for the National Employment Law Project, a labor-advocacy group, wrote:

“Unfortunately, some state lawmakers are not much interested in understanding or solving the continuing unemployment problem; they just want it to go away. So in an increasing number of states, the perceived ‘problem’ is no longer ‘unemployment’—it’s the ‘unemployed.’ And the most convenient and politically facile way to attack the unemployed is to attack unemployment insurance.”

Together, the article and its headline implied that some states are trying to “disappear” jobless people—at least statistically—by reducing the number of people receiving unemployment insurance.

Should this looser transitive use of “disappear” be disappeared? Well, some sticklers are annoyed by it. One reader of the Huffington Post article, for example, posted this tart response: “How to disappear an intransitive verb.”

However, we like this eye-catching use of language. “Disappear” here is an attention-getter, and attention is what headlines are supposed to get.

Although you won’t find the usage in standard dictionaries, it’s an extension of the dark transitive sense from Argentina, which is in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

American Heritage says the transitive “disappear” means “to cause (someone) to disappear, especially by kidnapping or murder.” Merriam-Webster’s defines it as “to cause the disappearance of.” Neither dictionary has any lexical reservations about the usage.

The OED defines this sense of the verb as “to abduct or arrest (a person), esp. for political reasons, and subsequently to kill or detain as a prisoner, without making his or her fate known.”

Oxford adds that the word is frequently used “with reference to Latin America,” and that it developed “originally and chiefly after American Spanish desaparecido,” a noun meaning “a disappeared, missing person.”

The Times Magazine article cited above provides some insight into the Argentine usage. The authors write:

Desaparecido is one of the more familiar terms of a new Argentine argot, a strange, forbidding vocabulary invented by an underworld of military and police personnel in their extralegal duties. The literal translation into English has a curiously passive sense to it: ‘to be disappeared.’ It disguises the ugly reality of clandestine abduction, torture and execution affecting tens of thousands of Argentines in recent years.”

The article continues: “The desaparecidos are persons who, usually after being detained by teams of well-armed men, vanish without a trace into a world beyond all legal and human rights.”

The Spanish term had previously appeared in Time magazine, according to OED citations, in a 1977 article about Argentina:

“Amnesty International  … accused the military of arbitrary detention, torture, summary executions and the ‘disappearance’ of at least 500 suspects…. Amnesty charges that many of the desaparecidos were innocent citizens abducted and murdered by soldiers and police in mufti.”

But in searches of our own we found earlier uses of desaparecidos, in both Spanish (1971) and English (1976). We also found it in Spanish in the mid-’70s in reference to Augusto Pinochet’s suppression of opponents in Chile.

An English phrase that conveys the meaning of desaparecidos, “the disappeared,” predates Argentina’s military dictatorship, which ended with the return to civilian rule and free elections in 1983.

The OED’s first use of this noun phrase comes from a poem in Charles Bukowski’s The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills (1969): “the hearse comes through the room filled with / the beheaded, the disappeared, the living / mad.”

Oxford’s next citation for the phrase is in reference to Argentina and comes from Robert McAfee Brown’s Theology in a New Key (1978):

“People are taken from their homes by masked gangs. They are never heard from again; they become ‘the disappeared,’ who are tortured to extract information about their political activities before they are killed.”

Some of these usages have survived “post-Argentina” (to use your phrase), and are now used more widely.

For example, “the disappeared” has been used in reference to victims of violent crime in Mexico. It’s also been used to refer to those kidnapped and killed by the Irish Republican Army. The OED includes a 1998 citation from the Belfast Telegraph:

“In addition to a firm commitment on decommissioning, he said his party wanted to see a resolution to the dreadful suffering to the relatives of the ‘disappeared’ and the standing down of the IRA active service units.”

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