Grammar And Changing Norms

“By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.” -George Carlin

Last weekend, I texted a friend to ask how his weekend was and he replied that it wasn’t going very well because a close friend of his parents was dying and “will have euthanasia soon.” This text message sparked a discussion about the term “euthanasia” and how it is used in speech.

Euthanasia has been legal in the Netherlands since 1995, and seems to be fairly accepted in practice. According to Wikipedia, there were 3,136 instances of euthanasia in 2010. In the US, it is only legal in Oregon, Washington, and Montana and there was only about 600 instances in 2010. As such, there is a lack of language to describe this event.

Which noun do you use? Is the act euthanasia? Suicide? Physician-assisted suicide? Assisted suicide? We’re so uncomfortable with the discussion, we use all these euphemisms for euthanasia among animals, such “put to sleep” or “put down.”

The terms “physician-assisted suicide” or just “assisted suicide” sound pejorative to me. Much like the term “date rape,” they imply that this suicide is different than other suicide. Date rape implies that this instance of rape is somehow less bad than plain old rape, whereas physician-assisted suicide and assisted suicide imply that these instances are less bad than those other suicides.

And, once you select a noun, which verb do you use? When we describe “regular” suicide, we say that someone “committed” suicide and that verb draws controversy. While some writing organizations advocate continued use of “committed,” a number of suicide prevention organizations advocate using “completed suicide” or “died by suicide.”

If you opt for the term “euthanasia,” then do you say “had” euthanasia? Received? Experienced? Got? Different verbs imply a different level of participation. If you plan to receive euthanasia, then it sounds as though something is being done to you. While true, it also seems to imply a lack of consent.

It’s a weird place to be in, when something changes culturally but the language has yet to catch up. Presuming that the use of euthanasia continues to increase, the language will have to develop around it. Personally, I prefer “chose euthanasia” as in “I’ve chosen to have euthanasia in November.”

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