What Do You Call an Assassination?
A euphemism round-up.
While on a recent first date with a fellow dog person, I made a confession. If my dog were sick and dying, and—through some devil’s bargain—I could save his life by having some shady goons kill some other guy I don’t know, I’d totally do it. Yes, as a first-date ice-breaker, I confessed to a penchant for hypothetical assassination. How romantic!
Of course, I didn’t actually use the word “assassination,” and not because such a preposterous, pet-propelled murder wouldn’t have the political motivation that is the lifeblood (so to speak) of true assassination. No, I was embarrassed by my weird admission and started euphemizing, which gives me something in common with actual governments, groups, and individuals who plot and carry out assassinations in the real world that exists somewhere beyond my silly little sheltered existence. The world of assassination is a quagmire of euphemism and doublespeak, a fact brought out by a New York Times kerfuffle over whether “targeting killing” or “assassination” was the correct term for the U.S.-government-ordered murder (or is that, “killing”?) of a suspected terrorist.
So here’s a look at some of the most covert, blatant, wordy, and weird terms for assassinations and contract hits, a blurry distinction explored by American Dialect Society (ADS) member Victor Steinbok here. My apologies to the dozens of terms I’ve left out, such as “extrajudicial execution,” “hit,” “erase,” “remove,” “waste,” “whack,” “rub out,” “take out,” “bump off,” “wet work,” and “salvage”—a Filipino term that takes the euphemistic cake.
First things first, and that means “assassination” itself. The first meaning of “assassin” will do little to repair the current state of Christian-Muslim relations: As the Oxford English Dictionary describes, the term comes from an Arabic word for “hashish-eater” and in English referred to “Certain Muslim fanatics in the time of the Crusades, who were sent forth by their sheikh, the ‘Old Man of the Mountains,’ to murder the Christian leaders.” Here’s a rather verbose use from 1860: “The assassins, who are otherwise called the People of the Man of the Mountain, before they attacked an enemy, would intoxicate themselves with a powder made of hemp-leaves, out of which they prepared an inebriating electuary, called hashish.” Soon after the original sense appeared, it was being used more broadly for any killer, especially of someone in the public eye. The first recorded use of “assassination” comes, appropriately, from the tragedy MacBeth: “If th' Assassination Could trammell vp the Consequence, and catch With his surcease, Successe.”
terminate with extreme prejudice
Many people know this term from Apocalypse Now, when Harrison Ford’s character Col. Lucas told Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard, “When you find the Colonel (Kurtz), infiltrate his team by whatever means available and terminate the Colonel’s command.” Another character clarified: “Terminate...with extreme prejudice,” ordering the black ops assassination of Colonel Kurtz, who had gone off the grid, off the reservation, and off his nut as well. The OED traces the expression back to and this use: “His status as a double agent was reportedly confirmed by the Central Intelligence Agency, which..suggested that he either be isolated or ‘terminated with extreme prejudice’.” In a world of euphemism, you have to like the honesty. Just in case “terminate” isn’t clear enough, “with extreme prejudice” makes sure even the densest hitman knows he’s not delivering flowers.
total and complete immobilization
Here’s another four-word pile-up that ADS member Garson O’Toole alerted me to, used here in 1978 from the Sarasota Journal: “The Nixon administration plot for the ‘total and complete immobilization’ of one unidentified Panamanian official in January and February 1973 was never carried out...” The article eventually makes this meaning clear: “...although the assassination idea was dropped, other devious efforts to pressure Panama into cracking down on drug traffickers were put into effect.”
Since at least 1969, this magician’s favorite has been used in a way this OED cite makes explicit: “There are never any witnesses of a killing... The families of many who disappear prefer not to take the matter to the authorities.” It is also possible, grammatically, to “disappear” someone, as in this 1987 quote: “Our two Nicaraguan doctors were disappeared, one right after the other.” This is very reminiscent of “liquidate,” a Russian contribution to English first found in 1924: “In this way the ‘Labor Opposition’, the ‘Workers Pravda’, and a few other recalcitrant groups were all ‘liquidated’.“
This is the synonym that caused such a hubbub in The New York Times when it appeared here in a story by Scott Shane: “The Obama administration has taken the extraordinary step of authorizing the targeted killing of an American citizen, the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to have shifted from encouraging attacks on the United States to directly participating in them...” The term is often used to describe the work done by the killing machines known as drones. While “targeting killing” is straightforward—it isn’t as evasive as calling a pet a “furkid” or a mutt an “All-American”— it does feel like a dodge of “assassination” to me. An assassination by any other name is still an assassination, and we might as well say so.
(Thanks much to my word-loving cohorts on the American Dialect Society listserv, especially Joel S. Berson, Gerald Leonard Cohen, Don Goncharoff, Bill Mullins, and Dave Wilton.)