Re-visiting language and suicide

After much anecdotal evidence, a study on perceptions of the phrases referring to suicide has been published. In this post, I want to offer comment. This post contains arguments which for some people will be controversial.

I want to start by applauding the study. I am quite tired of saying, time and again, that advice given on how to speak of suicide is based on impressions and not on evidence. For the first time we have a large-scale study which offers preliminary evidence to fall back on when speaking of ‘language of suicide’. Here are my comments.

1. “Commit suicide”. I must admit that I am grateful for the authors that they show the results of how ‘commit suicide’ is perceived. This is particularly so that the phrase has just about been banned from suicidological discourse. And the study reveals how problematic and unfounded this is.

What is particularly interesting is that people who “had been affected by suicide solely through their own experiences” found it acceptable! And the question that I immediately want to ask is: who are you (leaving ‘you’ advisedly ambiguous) to tell me how I am supposed to refer to my own suicide (or its attempt).

The authors quote a very poignant extract of a mother writing about her son:

“because by the very definition of “committed”, it is EXACTLY what my son did. It has NO implications of being something unlawful or an act of crime, as many suicide “experts” will try to tell you. Political correctness gone bat s*** crazy. Makes me SOOOOOOOOO angry. Do not tell ME what my son did! Don’t you dare “correct” me!”

Much could be said about this written outburst, but let me just limit myself to saying that anyone who dares correct how a parent speaks of their child’s suicidal death should really think twice and then twice again. And so, if the study shows anything it is that exhortations to stop using ‘commit suicide’ should stop immediately. ‘We’ really should not know better.

2. Context. The major limitation of the study, and, unsurprisingly, one not noted by the authors, is that it refers to phrases outside any context. And I want to say, again (sigh!), that communication in language is not about individual words or phrases. Let me repeat what I said here a number of times. You can turn around just about any word commonly considered to be nice into an insult, as you can turn around just about any word commonly considered to be unnice (or nasty) into something nice. Such is the power of context that language as we know it from the dictionary is only a mere paint to use on a canvas, on which things can appear very differently from those in the dictionary.

And so, as the researchers study phrases, they don’t really study how to speak, they study attitudes to the colour which is yet to be used in a painting. People were asked an abstract question and provided abstract answers, outside how a word they rank as acceptable or not would be used. And it’s worth understanding that a mere flick of the tone with which you speak will turn the highly accepted ‘took their life’ into an insult. Would they still like that phrase in such a context? I doubt it.

Indeed, the study focuses on the written medium, yet, the authors advocate ‘academic and media guidelines’, without explicitly limiting their findings to written language. And yet, for linguists it is fairly clear that how say things is quite a distance from how we write things and these media should not be conflated. In other words, an oral presentation of an academic speaking to non-academic audience (would that count as academic use?) has very little to do with an academic article. To simply talk about ‘academic guidelines’ is untenable.

3. Now, one of the aspects of such studies that I keep having a problem with is that they do not study one particular group of people – those who did kill themselves. I understand, of course, that their wishes cannot be studied, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t count. And yet, they never feature in language considerations. And I think it is important to consider how people who committed suicide actually would wish that act to be referred to. Moreover, judging by the fact that those who have experience of suicide attempts choose ‘commit suicide’, I think we should pause with language policy.

Here we go into an ethical quagmire of questions such as who has the right to describe my actions, who has the right to set language policy, who owns language. And I would like to make my personal view clear: I reject the right of any however well-meaning academic or activist to tell me how to speak of my own experience. I actually find attempts to correct me when I speak of my experiences offensive.

4. Making suicide more accessible. Some time ago, I wrote a post about growing acceptability of suicide.  Although the matter deserves considerably more study, one could, I think, speculate that acceptability of suicide is (at least partly) to do with attempts to reduce stigma of suicide, partly through what language is advocated for use. I am disappointed that the authors of the study do not stop to consider such issues. And yet, what we see in their results is that the phrases which are scored acceptable are those which continue to euphemise suicide. Two of the three most acceptable phrases (took their own life”, “died by suicide” and “ended their life”) do not even mention suicide. One removes agency from the person killing themselves (an argument, I am pleased to say, the authors note in passing only to immediately ignore it).

Should therefore such phrases be promoted? I am considerably less convinced than the authors. What if they do contribute to growing acceptability of suicide? Would we want to promote them as well because people like them? I would suggest we would not. And I would suggest that the authors urgently consider their recommendations. Things are complex, while interventions, linguistic or otherwise, may have consequences that go way beyond the issue phrase acceptability.

I’d go further. When, at a suicidological conference, someone suggests that a suicidal crisis should be referred to as ‘a transformative struggle’, I start worrying. Yes, you will come up with the most anodyne and inoffensive language possible, only people will be killing themselves. But, hey, at least we’ll get the language right, right?  

5. Majority. The final comment I want to make is about policing language. Who has the right to set the language policy? Is it really the majority of people, as suggested by the authors of the study? Does it really mean that the mother quoted before doesn’t really count and her wish for her son’s suicide to be referred to in a particular way should be discarded? Because majority rules? I find such arguments very problematic.

So, let me ask two questions. Are we really certain that the insistence that language matters, ‘commit suicide’ is bad comes from ‘the people’. Or have ‘we’, academics, activists, persuaded people that it matters, so it started mattering. We created a need, so people now need language change. Does it really matter that much? I don’t know.

Second, I want to quote again the post on shibboleths by Debbie Cameron. To what extent are the language arguments actually about excluding and stigmatising people who wish to speak differently, who do not share the vision of a particular language?

Let me remind you of a story I wrote about a couple of times.  I was once told on Twitter that the Samaritans’ research had found that using the phrase ‘commit suicide’ stops people from seeking help. I contacted the Samaritans, they denied the existence of such research. The response came too late, the ‘world’ heard how I contributed to human misery by defending the right to use a no-no phrase. So, is it really about ‘helping people’ or is it more about identifying people who speak like us and those who don’t.  I wish the study authors considered such issues as well.


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