This post is my reaction to another appeal to stop using the phrase ‘commit suicide’. It is likely to be controversial.
Vaughan Bell’s argument is based upon most frequent collocations of the verb ‘commit’. And indeed, as expected, ‘commit’, when it means ‘do’ or ‘carry out’, collocates with nouns referring to negative things, quite a lot of them illegal (such as ‘crime’ or ‘rape’). On this basis, it is argued (both by Dr Bell and others) that when you use the phrase ‘commit suicide’, you construct suicide as illegal or antisocial. Moreover, as it is based on frequency of collocations, arguments that you can actually commit a mistake or a logical fallacy, are beaten immediately – these, indeed, are not what ‘we’ think about when we think about the verb commit’ (please do forgive my use of the verb ‘think’ – it’s a figure of speech, as I have no idea what people think about).
Alas, even though the argument is well made, I think that, at best, it is premature and I’m not certain at all that ‘we’ should stop using the phrase ‘commit suicide’. Let me, again, offer some counterarguments.
My first argument against the ban of the phrase is that the equivalents are as problematic. By using ‘die by suicide’, we remove the person’s agency in taking their own life. ‘Die by suicide’ suggests that the death happens, and yet, it doesn’t. The person actually does something in order to ‘die by suicide’. The label changes the way we are encouraged to see suicide. It no longer is an action of a person who takes their life, but an event that happens to him or her. By removing the stigmatising connotations of crime, we also remove the intentional aspect of suicide. I am yet to see an argument for doing it. And in my view, it’s impossible to argue about connotations of ‘commit suicide’ and not consider those of the replacements.
Alternatively, we could say ‘He completed suicide.’ The word ‘complete’ takes care of the problem of agency – it does suggest an action a person takes, it acknowledges the act of ‘taking’ life. The problem is that ‘complete’ has clear positive undertones. We complete things that are socially approved, such as exams, repairs, studying and the like. We could also say ‘take one’s life’ – the phrase does retain the agency of the person, but it removes the word ‘suicide’. That also has consequences.
Let me also add that suicide is no longer illegal and this fact should not be forgotten. It’s also worth remembering that language contains a zillion false implications and connotations and we, as competent language users, happily live with them. For example, we still use phrases such as ‘The sun rises.’ even though we know full well that the sun doesn’t rise, it also doesn’t set. And yet, we can actually distinguish between the phrase and reality and no one suggests that such phrases should be banned because their implications are false. Of course, I understand that in the case of ‘commit suicide’ much more is at stake, still, has anyone actually bothered to check if the connotations of the phrase are ‘live’? Would we still want to ban the phrase, if people actually didn’t perceive any illegality of suicide despite the use of ‘commit suicide’? To be completely honest, I had not given the issue another thought before I started being interested in suicidology. However, I do accept that my perspective is different.
Now, my second counterargument is likely to be controversial. To repeat: the argument against the use of ‘commit suicide’ is that because the phrase connotes illegality, it stigmatises the act and through this the person killing themselves. Moreover, it is often pointed out that families of people who committed suicide would prefer that ‘we’ stop using the phrase.
And I have a question here. Has someone actually considered whether dropping the phrase makes the act more acceptable and in the process more accessible? The discussion about how to refer to suicide is for the most part based on acontextual claims about ‘commit suicide’ . But what if, however unlikely it might be, the phrase is protective.
For example, research by John Oliffe and his colleagues suggests that men’s wish to avoid the stigma related to suicide can actually be protective. In other words, some men do not ‘commit suicide’ because they do not wish to cause the pain both of the act and of the stigma attached to it. Is it possible that by banning the phrase ‘commit suicide’ this protective factor is removed for those men?
Needless to say, I haven’t got any answers. I just think that such questions are important enough to start considering whether appeals to stop using ‘commit suicide’ are actually worth making. As is always the case with language, things are simply way more complicated than references to a phrase we don’t like, however good the reasons for disliking it are. Here the complications come first from the language itself – the replacements of the phrase are not ‘innocent’, and, second, they come from how suicide is experienced.
That said, I want to say that I understand the perspectives of people bereaved by suicide. This is yet another piece in the linguistic jigsaw puzzle which should be acknowledged and considered. The upshot of such considerations might well be that ‘we’ decide that it is their perspective which is crucial and should be adopted. But before we do so, let’s consider the full complexity of the situation and the consequences such change implies.