Friday, September 15, 2017

Thoughts on "commit"

As Suicide Prevention Week draws to a close, I'm asking friends to consider saying "died by/of/from suicide" rather than "committed suicide."

Personally, I tend to say, "died by" when talking about suicide. And as you know, I talk about suicide a lot.

This may be something you say without thinking. It's certainly what I used to say. I am sure there are instances of it on my blog. It was common parlance.

But that doesn't mean it doesn't carry negative connotations. I believe it does, and I personally favor the shift away from it.

It doesn't offend me. A friend recently said about me that I'm not quick to take offense, and this is true. I'm also surprisingly hard to shock, by the way. But the use of "committed suicide" does now bother me, and some people find it very hurtful.

Lots of people have written about the negativity of using "commit," and I think what it comes down to is that we typically use "commit" for crimes. It's the only way of dying that people do not use "died of" when talking about. People die of liver failure caused by alcoholism, but we don't say "committed alcoholism."

I don't typically tell people what to say or how to say it. I do sometimes judge, that's true, but more often I'm interested in how language is used. Deviations are interesting. I'm a descriptive rather than prescriptive linguist. I love the flexibility of languages and how they evolve.

On a tangent, I will admit that the way incentive has been turned into a verb with "incentivize" annoys the tar out of me, but I don't rail against it. You can verbize anything in English (see what I did there?). One of my language acquisition professors at Georgetown liked to point out that "party" was not a verb in his time.

One could argue that commit is neutral because we also say, "commit to doing something" or "commit to memory" and that is true. But we don't "commit joy" or "commit success." One could maybe argue for the continued use of "commit" as historical. There may be other reasons I haven't thought of.

I haven't had this conversation with anyone outside of the mental health community before. I don't correct people's use of language, ever. That's part of my personal "don't be a jerk" code of conduct.

So I put this out there as a suggestion to consider.

It may be that you have lost someone to suicide, and the use of "commit" doesn't bother you. That's OK. We all have things that bother us and things that don't.

I would just ask that you give this some thought, because language is powerful.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. argh I can't spell. I deleted and re-posted and still misspelled :)

    2. Nicole, I know you love language as well, and find it interesting to think about constructs. I have wondered about this, because as you point out, we don't have "suicided" as a past tense. But we also don't have "heart attacked," for example. I wonder if it has to do with suicide being a crime, and you commit a crime. I don't know. Then in Spanish and French it's a reflexive verb, so you don't have to add something to a noun. I dunno. I think I'll look into this!

  2. I never thought about it like that but what you say makes perfect sense.
    I will definitely take up this suggestion. A side thought - You touche don this a little, but I do think it's possible that people do not think of the word "commit" in this case negatively, as in committing a crime. I think its possible people sort of naturally had to use the word "commit" because you can't verbize, and there is no past tense of the word, suicide. You can't say a person suicided. So it may be possible that people had to insert "commit" just to make it work grammatically. Just a random useless thought.

    1. That was a hastily done comment while also trying to pay tension to my kids on the playground. What I was thinking was that maybe it was rooted in the history of it being a crime. Not that people now think about is a crime. I really don't know. I also don't know if it is still a crime. There are clearly a lot of things I do not know.

  3. Language is powerful, indeed. This is something I may never have thought about had you not pointed it out, Lisa, and now that you have I can't *stop* thinking about it. You make an excellent point and have reformed the way I think and speak of it in the future.

    1. Thank you, Miranda. This is how it was for me. I'd never thought about it, and then I read a bit about it, and I thought about it, and then it felt like I needed to shift how I talked about it. It wasn't instant for me, though. There was a period where I would use both, depending on how mindful I was in the moment.


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