Macquarie Dictionary


If words could kill

If you’re a fan of horror, fantasy or just plain crime novels, you’ve probably come across some interesting (and hypothetical) ways to kill people. Speaking entirely figuratively, we’ve had a look at some of the more obscure and specific words in the Australian English language to do with killing someone.

To start with, there are the generic terms for killing, such as murder, slaughter, eliminate and execute. These can be done in a variety of different ways, so their definitions are quite similar. You can also include massacre and butcher in this list of standard terms for general murder. But from here, it’s gets a little more interesting – from a lexicographical perspective.

One which arguably belongs with the aforementioned group, but which in some ways stands alone is the word assassinate. Meaning ‘to kill by sudden or secret, premeditated assault, especially for political or religious motives’, while the means of the murder can vary, the fact that it is done suddenly or secretly sets this particular term apart.

On the other hand, take, for example, the oft-cited word defenestrate, which means ‘to throw (a person) out of a window’. This is not to say that death would definitely occur which is why death by defenestration is more widely known, but it is an interesting and very particular definition (and a favourite word in our podcast on internet slang).

A couple of words that go together thematically if not etymologically are excoriate (from Latin) and dismember (from Middle English). Both words have definitions that revolve around the removal or separation of body parts, ending in death. To excoriate is to ‘strip off or remove the skin from’, and to dismember is to ‘divide limb from limb’. Both visceral, fascinating expressions.

And then we have some more elemental forms of death. International news coverage brings with it information on these kinds of deaths, usually as a form of death penalty where it is part of the law of the nation. For example, the electric chair is a tool used to electrocute a person to death. And while hanging is the means to the end, the ultimate cause of death might be suffocation, strangulation (and in some rare and obscure cases, to burke, which is ‘to murder, as by suffocation, so as to leave no or few marks of violence.’ So named for W Burke, hanged at Edinburgh in 1829 for murders of this kind). Other methods used in these situations are to shoot (with a gun) or stone a person to death.

And finally, something which stands alone is immolation. While the definition of this word is ‘to kill as a sacrificial victim; offer in sacrifice’, due to widespread reports of people self-immolating by setting themselves on fire, occasionally, the fiery aspect of this can get confused with the definition of the word. But, like assassinate, the method of murder can vary, but the motive must stay the same.

We are tentatively curious about what other words like these may be out there, and aware that in theory, you could put ‘death by’ in front of any word to create a new and horrifying meaning, such as death by spoon, or death by platypus,  or some such.

Killer words - excoriate strip off or remove the skin from Killer words - defenestrate to throw (a person) out of a window. Killer words - immolate to kill as a sacrificial victim; offer in sacrifice

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