Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Verbing in the news: The dark side

Pinochet finally died -- without ever facing any semblance of justice. 'Another grave for me to piss on', as someone I know says at times like these. But language plays a role in the coverage. Language Log has already picked up on the pronounciation issue with a good post by Eric Bakovic. (Update, 1:45 a.m.: Slate now has a detailed 'Explainer' post on this, here.)

But something else has struck me in several reports: People keep saying that he was responsible for a change in English, here from MacroHistory: "the word disappear became a verb - as in 'they disappeared him.'" There are lots of hits like that out there -- surprising since every reasonably fluent speaker of English surely has a verb to disappear, a French loan common in English for centuries. What folks mean, I suspect, is that it became a transitive verb. In fact, OED has that meaning 'to cause to disappear', back to the late 19th c.:
1897 Chem. News 19 Mar. 143 We progressively disappear the faces of the dodecahedron. 1949 Amer. Speech XXIV. 41 The magician may speak of disappearing or vanishing a card.
You're thinking, OK, but the euphemism is much more specific, about people being abducted under suspicious circumstances. OED has THAT going back to 1941, intransitively:
There have been arrests recently and there are rumors that some people have disappeared ...
The story that sounds right to me is the one at the end of the OED online, marked as a draft entry from March 2003: The relevant sense here reflects American Spanish desaparecido, as in the disappeared:
American Spanish desaparecido DESAPARECIDO n. (lit. ‘those who have been disappeared’), which posits a passive transitive use of the usually intransitive Spanish verb desaparecer, evoking an action performed on another but disguised as autonomous.
Interesting little derivational wrinkle there between noun and verb. Still wish he hadn't gotten away without facing a court.

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