The Grammarphobia Blog

When Pomicide isn’t cricket

Q: England (Poms) recently “murdered” Australia (Aussies) on the cricket field. The response in the Australian press was to coin the word “Pomicide.” But surely, if we follow the pattern of “homicide,” “fratricide,” “matricide,” etc., this means the opposite of what was intended. So wouldn’t a better coinage be “Aussicide”?

A: Of course you’re right—those “-cide” formations are composed from the word for the victim.

“Fratricide” refers to the murder of a brother, “regicide” to that of a king, and so on. Logically, “Pomicide” would refer to a trouncing of the Poms, not by the Poms.  So the usage displayed in the Australian press just wasn’t cricket.

The word-forming element “-cide” (plus the connective “i”) is used in “forming nouns with the sense ‘the killing of (the person, animal, etc., indicated by the initial element),’ ” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, such words have had dual meanings in the past, when “-cide” was used in reference to the slayer as well as the slaying.

Yes, the formation was once used in “forming nouns with the sense ‘a person who kills (the person, animal, etc. indicated by the initial element),’ ” the OED says.

In that sense, a person who killed a human being was a “homicide,” a person who killed his mother was a “matricide,” and so on.

But even with this interpretation, a “Pomicide” would be a killer of Poms, not a Pom who was a killer.

There are two sources of “-cide” in English: the classical Latin –cīda (for a cutter, killer, or slayer) and –cīdium (for the cutting or killing itself).

In classical Latin, Oxford says, the words “homicida, parricida, matricida, fratricida, sororicida, tyrannicida” meant the “slayer of a man, father, mother, brother, sister, tyrant.” And there were corresponding  words for the act itself: homicidium, parricidium, matricidium, etc.

Most of these Latin words—both sets of them—passed into French, then on into English, with the uniform ending “-cide,” whether they meant the slayer or the slaying.

For example, in the Middle Ages “homicide” was used to mean the killer as well as the killing of a human being.

We still sometimes refer to someone who takes his own life as “a suicide,” but today most of these words mean the act of taking life, not the responsible party.

Since the 16th century, similar English words have been created that use “Latin first elements,” Oxford says. The dictionary mentions “regicide,” from the Latin rex (“king”), and “suicide,” from sui (“of oneself”).

Here are some of the most common words of this kind, and the dates when they were first recorded in writing.

“homicide”: one who kills a human being (1382, used adjectivally); the act of killing a human being (circa 1386).

“fratricide”: one who kills a brother (c1450); the act of killing a brother (1569).

“parricide”: one who kills a near relation (perhaps 1545); the killing of a close relative (1559). Later used in reference to a father.

“regicide”: one who kills a king (1548); the killing of a king (1579).

“patricide”: one who kills his or her father (1593); the act of killing one’s father (1576).

“matricide”: one who kills his or her mother (1594); the act of killing one’s mother (1632).

“suicide”: one who takes his or her life (1727); the taking of one’s own life (1656).

“insecticide”: a person or thing that kills insects; the act of killing insects (both 1865).

“germicide”: something that kills microorganisms, especially bacteria (1870).

“fungicide”: something used to kill fungi (1889).

“herbicide”: something that kills weeds or other unwanted plants (1899).

“pesticide”: something used to kill pests, especially insects (1933). Some dictionaries also accept its use in the sense of “herbicide.”

“genocide”: the systematic killing of a national or ethnic group. The term was coined, probably in 1943, by the legal scholar Raphael Lemkin and appeared in print the following year in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. It incorporates the Greek genos (race or kind) and originally referred to the extermination of Jews by the Nazis.

In addition to the usual suspects, creative formations have been cropping up since the early 19th century. The OED has entries for inventions like “deericide” (1832), “suitorcide” (1839), “birdicide” (1866), and “verbicide” (1858), a coinage of Oliver Wendell Holmes.

In The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, Holmes declared: “Homicide and verbicide—that is, violent treatment of a word with fatal results to its legitimate meaning, which is its life—are alike forbidden.”

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