Definition & Etymology


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Suicide refers to the act of voluntarily or intentionally ending one's own life, as in the exclamatory statement,

"Everyone, look at me! I'm going to commit suicide!"

It also describes the person who has accomplished the act, and in some cases, the person who plans or attempts the act, as in the sentence,

"The average suicide doesn't take the time to devise a truly interesting demise."

It can also be used, albeit somewhat rarely these days, as a verb, as in,

"Dear Diary, tomorrow I think I'll get up, eat a huge, greasy, artery-clogging breakfast of sizzling pig flesh and fried chicken embryos washed down with the reconstituted interior fluid of some scientifically-cultivated citrus fruits, and then I think I'll suicide."

As you can see, it's a very versatile word.

The word "suicide" is a fairly modern one. Prior to its creation, such unwieldy conglomerations as "self-destroy," "self-homicide," 'self-kill," "self-murder," "self-slaughter," and "self-slay" were all anyone had to work with. Other European languages had words for the act, but they proved to be just as clumsy. Writers and orators turned to the ancient western languages but neither the intellectual and philosophical Greeks, nor the highly-efficient Romans had the exact word they were looking for.

So, sometime in the last half of the seventeenth century, the English cobbled together a new word. They took the Latin prefix sui, meaning "of oneself," and placed it before the Latin verb caedere, meaning "to kill." An adjustment of conjugation rendered the word suicidium, and in the company of previously-existing French words (homicide, matricide, patricide, fratricide), it became the word we know today -- a product of Anglo-Franco faux Latin.

The first known use of the word is in Walter Charleton's The Ephesian and Cimmerian Matrons, written in 1651: "To vindicate ones self from... inevitable Calamity, by Sui-cide is not... a Crime."

Reflecting contemporary attitudes toward the act, Edward Phillips, in his New World of Words (1671), remarked upon the construction of the word. He said that he would rather it had been formed from the French sus, meaning "sow," "...than from the pronoun sui... as if it were a swinish part for a man to kill himself."


The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1978 (1933).

Skeat, Reverend Walter W. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1910.

Wilkins, Robert. The Bedside Book of Death. New York: Citadel Press, 1990.

revised 19990422

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