Should we stop saying ‘commit’ suicide?

There is a movement in mental health to avoid the phrase ‘commit suicide’. It is claimed that the word ‘commit’ refers to a crime and this increases the stigma for what’s often an act of desperation that deserves compassion, rather than condemnation.

The Samaritans’ media guidelines discourage using the phrase, advising: “Avoid labelling a death as someone having ‘committed suicide’. The word ‘commit’ in the context of suicide is factually incorrect because it is no longer illegal”. An article in the Australian Psychological Society’s InPsych magazine recommended against it because the word ‘commit’ signifies not only a crime but a religious sin. There are many more such claims.

However, on the surface level, claims that the word ‘commit’ necessarily indicates a crime are clearly wrong. We can ‘commit money’ or ‘commit errors’, for instance, where no crime is implied. The dictionary entry for ‘commit’ (e.g. see the definition at the OED) has entries related to ‘committing a crime’ as only a few of its many meanings.

But we can probably do a little better when considering the potentially stigmatising effects of language than simply comparing examples.

One approach is to see how the word is actually used by examining a corpus of the English language – a database of written and transcribed spoken language – and using a technique called collocation analysis that looks at which words appear together.

I’ve used the Corpus of Contemporary American English collocation analysis for the results below and you can do the analysis yourself if you want to see what it looks like.

So here are the top 30 words that follow the word ‘commit’, in order of frequency in the corpus.

Some of the words are clearly parts of phrases (‘commit ourselves…’) rather than directly referring to actions but you can see that most common two word phrase is ‘commit suicide’ by a very large margin.

If we take this example, the argument for not using ‘commit suicide’ gets a bit circular but if we look at the other named actions as a whole, they’re all crimes or potential crimes. Essentially, they’re all fairly nasty.

If you do the analysis yourself (and you’ll have to go to the website and type in the details, you can’t link directly) you’ll see that non-criminal actions don’t appear until fairly low down the list, way past the 30 listed here.

So ‘commit’ typically refers to antisocial and criminal acts. Saying ‘commit suicide’ probably brings some of that baggage with it and we’re likely to be better off moving away from it.

It’s worth saying, I’m not a fan of prohibitions on words or phrases, as it tends to silence people who have only colloquial language at their disposal to advocate for themselves.

As this probably includes most people with mental health problems, only a minority of which will be plugged into debates around language, perhaps we are better off thinking about moving language forward rather than punishing the non-conforming.

8 thoughts on “Should we stop saying ‘commit’ suicide?”

  1. I just returned from password hell to discover my comment isn’t here anymore.
    In short: your point about exclusion is a good one but it seems to indicate a lack of understanding of the diversity of people suffering mental distress. In my editor most are well aware of the distress unskillfull language causes.

  2. “Adultery” is not a crime or antisocial act. If we really wanted to play down suicide we should get rid of the -cide word that implies murder (homicide, genocide, fratricide…). German has a nice euphemism for suicide “Freitod” = “free death”.

  3. If “commit” implies a crime, every programmer on earth is a criminal. We commit code all the time, we also commit transactions in databases. We are probably the most frequent users of the term in current times, I’d wager.

  4. Thank you for publishing this piece. I have long been an advocate to remove the phrase “commit/committed suicide” from use in describing someone who has died by suicide. Both the US and Canada also have recommendations that the phrase not be used, especially in the media.
    For me, it wasn’t about the criminality of the word “commit/committed”, but rather because (IMHO), it removed the fact that someone had died. Someone who had a loved one, or loved ones. To say they “committed suicide” fails to tell the whole story. We don’t use other ‘like’ phrases when someone dies in a motor vehicle collision, or from heart failure.
    I will be sharing this piece! Thank you again!
    Dan

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