Q: I read a profile in the NY Times about Kelly Catlin, a cyclist who committed suicide. A reader took umbrage over use of the word “suicide” and claimed that Poynter and other sources are using different language to describe this act. Is it true? And if so, is this yet another step toward sanitized language?
A: The objection in the news media is to the verb phrase “commit suicide,” not to the noun “suicide” itself. Since 2015, The Associated Press Stylebook has restricted the use of “commit suicide,” but the guidance is ignored by much of the media, even by some AP editors and reporters.
As the AP stylebook puts it, “Avoid using the phrase ‘committed suicide’ except in direct quotations from authorities. Alternate phrases include ‘killed himself,’ ‘took her own life’ or ‘died by suicide.’ The verb ‘commit’ with ‘suicide’ can imply a criminal act.”
(Suicide isn’t a federal crime in the US, but its legality is ambiguous in some states; assisted suicide is a crime in most states.)
The AP style guide’s entry for “suicide” has been discussed several times on the website of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies since a March 27, 2015, article about changes in the stylebook. In that article, David Minthorn, a co-editor of the style manual, discusses the news agency’s thinking about how to report about suicides:
“Committed in that context suggests possibly an illegal act, but in fact, laws against suicide have been repealed in the U.S., at least in certain states, and many other places, so we’re going to avoid using that term on our own, although it’s a term that authorities widely use and we will use it while quoting authorities.”
Despite the stylebook prohibition, the expression often appears in AP articles that don’t quote authorities. Here’s an example from a May 3, 2019, story that mentions a young woman with post-traumatic stress disorder who had to give up her service dog: “About a month after losing Bailey, Katie committed suicide.” We found scores of similar examples in a search of AP articles that appeared online over the last year.
The phrase routinely shows up in the online news media. In a search for “committed suicide” in the online New York Times archive, we found a dozen examples in just one recent month (April 2019). And a search for the phrase in the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles published from 2010 to the present, found 33,351 examples.
As for the etymology, the phrase “commit suicide” first appeared in writing in the early 18th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The earliest OED example is from An Apology for Mr. Thomas Rind (1712). In Rind’s account of why he left the Presbyterian Church in Scotland and became an Episcopalian, he writes that the struggle over his faith “had almost driven him to Despair, and to commit Suicide.”
The noun “suicide” showed up in the mid-17th century, derived from the modern Latin suīcīdium, formed by combining the classical Latin suī (of oneself) and -cīda (killer). Previously, in classical Latin, “suicide” was referred to as mors voluntaria, or voluntary death.
“Historically,” the OED notes, “suicide was regarded as a crime in many societies. Laws against suicide existed in English common law until 1961.”
The dictionary’s earliest example of “suicide” is from Glossographia, a 1656 dictionary compiled by Thomas Blount: “Suicide, the slaying or murdering of himself; self-murder.”
In the early 15th century, the verb “commit” took on the sense of to “carry out (a reprehensible act); to perpetrate (a crime, sin, offence, etc.),” according to the OED. The earliest citation is from a February 1445 entry in the parliamentary records of England:
“The said prower afterward, byfore the justicez of the saide benche expressely knowleched, that no such stelthe … was comitted.” (At the time, a “prower” was a purveyor of supplies, and “stelthe,” or stealth, referred to stealing or taking secretly and wrongfully.)