New York Magazine‘s “Vulture” column recently ran a very funny piece on a scene in the TV show “The Wire”:

The go-getting young reporter played by Michelle Paress gets chastised for writing that (paraphrasing) “the Fire Department evacuated 120 people” during a fire. “You evacuate a building. You don’t evacuate people,” Old Curmudgeon Editor grunts. Cut to Paress’s character looking in some sort of reference book, then admiringly muttering, “He’s right, you know,” to a fellow reporter. But is he really right?

I had never heard this particular Silly Shibboleth before, but I immediately realized the etymological principle involved: the verb is from a Latin word meaning ‘to make empty [vacuus]’ and thus should be used only of emptying a building. David Simon (who wrote the dialog) explains in his response:

At the Baltimore Sun in my day, I was chastised by the great Jay Spry, rewrite man to the world, for evacuating people in my report of a downtown gas leak. I plead guilty to an anachronism if indeed that is what it now is. […]
I could not resist having the fake Jay Spry deliver the real Jay Spry’s admonition to Alma, much as he delivered it to me. Plain and simple, it was homage to a wonderful newspaper character and one of my earliest memories of my time at the Sun.

Also of note: The Baltimore Sun would never allow you to refer to a funeral home in an obit. No one lives at a funeral home, we were told. Funeral establishment was the required phrase.

The comments contain other such dictates (“Technically you can’t perform an autopsy on a different species, so if a racehorse died mysteriously and some reporter wrote that veterinarians hoped to learn more after an autopsy, it would be changed to ‘necropsy’ or ‘post-mortem examination.’ Every reporter has a million stories like this, and they’re all different”); the whole thing is lots of fun. Thanks for the tip, Doug!


  1. Terry Collmann says

    FWIW, The Times (of London) won’t let its reporters evacuate people, either.

  2. Of course, hospitals evacuate people all the time, especially preparatory to colon surgery.

  3. Dan Milton says

    The “auto” of “autopsy” can hardly refer to the biological species (and certainly not to the deceased). I’ve always assumed that an autopsy means the examiner looked for himself and is not reporting a third party’s opinion.

  4. Ugh. This reminds me of that George Carlin “Airline Safety” routine. Now don’t get me wrong, I like Carlin as much as the next guy, especially after “Modern Man”. But “Fuck you, I’m getting IN the plane”, that’s not humor, that’s just brainless nitpicking.

  5. I’m so crazy about “The Wire” that I was willing to give Simon the benefit of the doubt on the “evacuate” bit, assuming that he was just portraying newsroom nonsense. But what he wrote in his response to New York is preposterous:
    “However, I would argue that since the evacuation of people can in fact mean giving them enemas, the use of such a phrase should be discouraged by editors, given that the alternate phrase in which a given locale is evacuated is better and unequivocal. When a word has two meanings, find another word.”
    Really? Even if the case is as unambiguous as with “evacuate”? I’d like to see Simon actually try to follow that last pithy piece of advice.

  6. Yeah, that’s why I replaced that bit with an ellipsis — didn’t want to muddy the waters with obvious idiocy.

  7. The trouble with this is that “The Wire” has given new ammunition for prescriptivists — a new shibboleth for writers to agonise over. Do we really need this?

  8. I’m not so sure The Wire’s audience is full of raving prescriptivists, and after all this is a show that’s given us a new pronoun (“yo”) so we should be thankful to Mr Simon!

  9. I’m a proud prescriptivist ! Old Curmudgeon Editor and the model, Jay Spry, were quite right. It’s a slippery slope… look what happened to the perfectly good verb impact, because people were too lazy to say “had an impact on”. “Impacted” was a technical term for a nasty tooth problem, and should have stayed so.
    And another thing … 🙂

  10. Gabriella: No, sorry.
    Paul: Yeah, and when they started using agenda as a singular things really went downhill.

  11. This is just (etymologically based) prescriptivism at its silliest. So, “evacuate” is used mean “empty a building of people” during an emergency. Then it’s used with the people “removed” from the building as its object. (For this sort of shift, one might compare the knicker-twisting engendered among the generative linguistically minded by the dual construction with “load a wagon with hay” and “load hay on the wagon”, where the verb can take as its object either the material being conveyed to/from a container and the container itself. Or “award something to someone” vs. “award someone with”.) That is the *normal* use of the verb in English, but as is often the case with learned borrowings from Latin, it has a technical meaning, in this case referring to enemas. Now, I don’t speak very often of such matters, but it seems to me that the normal idiom in English is “to give someone an enema”, and I can’t ever remember hearing a sentence along the lines “They evacuated the patients” meaning anything other “got them out of the building because of the bomb them” rather than “emptied their bowels with an enema”. Perhaps one should run the prescription the other way, and say that the verb “evacuate” can’t be used with a human object to mean anything other than “remove from a building during an emergency” unless there is something in the sentence to make it clear that intestines rather than bombs are at issue.

  12. I notice – he says timidly, huddled in his flameproof suit – that no-one took up my comments about “impact”.

  13. Paul: My snarky remark about “agenda” should be taken as a blanket dismissal of all claims that some change or other in usage betokens the degeneration of the language and the end of civilization. Sure, people are “lazy”; that’s why we no longer have a case system. Do you prefer longer ways of saying things to shorter ones? I’m guessing you subscribe to the “omit needless words” dictum of Messrs Strunk & White; aren’t there three needless words in “had an impact on”? I submit to you that ordinary people have as much right to the verb as dentists.

  14. LH: One of those things, I guess, on which we must agree to disagree …

  15. Paul: When a creationist or hack-proponent of Intelligent Design writes into a serious website dedicated to biology, do you think all the biologists who read that website run to their computers to respond? People who actually understand the so-called descriptivist/prescriptivist debate know that there’s no debate.
    Suggested reading: Languagelog.com, Jim Quinn’s “American Tongue and Cheek,” David Crystal’s “The Fight for English” (or anything by him, really), or any modern linguistics textbook.

  16. I think that it was Nabokov who said that expression isn’t literature, it’s what you do to a pimple.

  17. David Marjanović says

    I’m a proud prescriptivist !

    “The Bierce-Hartman-McKean-Skitt Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation states that any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror.”
    (I’m trying to say that an English prescriptivist who puts a space in front of an exclamation mark, French-style, is a strange sight.)

  18. michael farris says

    “an English prescriptivist who puts a space in front of an exclamation mark, French-style, is a strange sight.”
    sacre bleu the damage, she has begun, I try, but I cannot to write ze langue anglish any plu….
    the language est no more, et c’est tout la fault de Paul! Le matador des lenguages!

  19. michael farris says

    “an English prescriptivist who puts a space in front of an exclamation mark, French-style, is a strange sight.”
    sacre bleu the damage, she has begun, I try, but I cannot to write ze langue anglish any plu….
    the language est no more, et c’est tout la fault de Paul! Le matador des lenguages!

  20. Paul Clapham says

    My mother, if she were alive today, would tell you that she was evacuated from London during the Second World War. As were many other children who would have said the same thing. She didn’t know Latin, but then, knowing Latin is not a prerequisite for speaking English.
    So: that usage of the word “evacuate” has been around for over 60 years now. And it doesn’t confuse anybody, nor is it ambiguous. Waving your Latin lexicons isn’t going to make it go away.

  21. Having started the fifth and final season of The Wire, I have now encountered this scene in the flesh (so to speak), and it made me laugh out loud. I have to admit that it made me wonder if John E. McIntyre was the curmudgeon involved (unlikely) and, since he was on the Sun in any case, what his thoughts were; luckily, he wrote a column about it:

    No, it wasn’t me

    A colleague on Twitter links to an episode of The Wire on YouTube and asks, “Is that you” thirty-one seconds in? It’s the bit in which a couple of editors berate a young reporter for having written that people were being evacuated. You can evacuate a city but not people, they tell her, with accompanying head-shaking over the ignorance of the young.

    As a teacher, I have ample experience with the ignorance of the young; as a journalist, I have daily experience of the ignorance of the old. Here is part of the entry on evacuate in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage:

    “The use of evacuate to mean ‘to remove (people) especially from a military zone or dangerous area’ was once controversial. It is not new by any means (its roots go back to the 17th century), but its widespread occurrence is a fairly recent development, dating back only to the first World War. … Early critics of evacuate in this sense believed that only the place from which the people were removed could properly serve as the object of the verb. … The argument was based on etymology — evacuate is derived from the Latin evacuare, “to make empty.” To speak of evacuating people, in the view of the critics, was to speak of making them empty. …

    “The issue was taken up by a few commentators upto and through the period of World War II, but the ‘remove’ sense of evacuate had by then proved to be so useful and popular that any criticism of it had the hollow ring of pure pedantry, and the controversy quickly died out. The respectability of this sense is no longer subject to question. …”

    No longer in question, indeed. There is no entry on evacuate in Garner’s Modern American Usage. I found none in four of Theodore Bernstein’s book on usage from 1958 to 1979 or in John Bremner’s 1980 Words on Words. For that matter, I myself never heard this stricture while coming up through the ranks.

    What this little vignette illustrates is the means by which superstitions about language are perpetuated. Some editor sixty or seventy years ago imposed this stricture on a young writer. What we were told as tyros is always true. So the young writer, aging, passed the stricture unexamined on to another young writer, and so unto the ages. By the same method the zombie rules are passed from generation to generation in schoolrooms, in saecula saeculorum.

    Newbies, be advised: Not everything that crusty old editor (myself included) tells you should be taken to the bank.

    A smart guy; the paper was lucky to have him. (But in the interests of accuracy, it wasn’t “a couple of editors,” it was just one, the rewrite man.)

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