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Wilf Popoff

Wasted Words: Surviving Overkill

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 8.30.29 AMIn 1956 SC Johnson (formerly Johnson Wax) developed Raid, an apparently effective insecticide that became a marketing miracle. But most of the credit for the boom belongs to Foote, Cone & Belding (aka FCB), a global advertising agency that created the legendary slogan, Raid Kills Bugs Dead.

This whimsically ironic tagline burst into our cultural lexicon while making the two companies richer. Either in jest or out of ignorance everyone was killing someone dead or using variants on this pleonasm. Ben Yagoda, journalism and English professor, describes it as “salutarily emphatic redundancy” in When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It.

But did this trendy tautology, kills dead, change our discourse on death?

A news item says someone was fatally electrocuted. Electrocute derives from electricity and execute, making death an inevitable consequence; if you survive you simply suffered an electric shock. Modern descriptive dictionaries (unhelpfully) offer injury as an outcome of electrocution, but my 1991 Oxford is explicit: it means death.

Another report says a prisoner died after committing suicide, a word combining two Latin roots, sui, for of oneself, and cida, for killer, the latter playing prominently in that family of assassins that includes homicide and fratricide. (See insecticide above.)

Similarly irritating was a report of ocean travellers suffocating to death in their ship’s hold. I grew up thinking suffocation was fatal, along with strangulation, asphyxiation and smothering, but that’s no longer so.

One could always survive poisoning or even choking, as one of Jian Ghomeshi’s accusers demonstrated. Drowning was deadly but I’ve heard fatally drowned. I should point out that a drowning man can be rescued. And of course people can withstand a gunshot, hence shot dead.

Today we can survive incidents that used to kill us, a comforting breakthrough. Should we thank a copywriter’s bug jingle for making it harder to die? Or has our language simply become more merciful, taking the sting out of death by offering options to hitherto fatal events. Two years ago I wrote here about passing away displacing dying.

One must forgive reporters or their editors for seeking clarity:

“You say he was electrocuted. Did he die?”

“Isn’t that what the word means?”

“Perhaps, but I think you should add fatally, just to be clear.”


Previous “Wasted Words” post: Recasting Punctuation

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