The Origin and Meaning of "Suicide"

The word, suicide, is one of the most taboo words in the English language.

It is rarely discussed, and often referred to obliquely: “There was an accident,” or outright denied: “She didn’t jump, she fell.”

Suicide, as a word, feel heavy. Those that have practice lifting it, professionals and anyone with lived experience, are the ones who can most readily talk about suicide.

The actual word is a noun, and is described well in the Online Etymology Dictionary:


Suicide (n.)

"Deliberate killing of oneself," 1650s, from Modern Latin suicidium "suicide," from Latin sui "of oneself" (genitive of se "self"), from PIE *s(u)w-o- "one's own," from root *s(w)e- (see idiom) + -cidium "a killing," from caedere "to slay" (from PIE root *kae-id- "to strike").

The meaning "person who kills himself deliberately" is from 1728. In Anglo-Latin, the term for "one who commits suicide" was felo-de-se, literally "one guilty concerning himself."

Even in 1749, in the full blaze of the philosophic movement, we find a suicide named Portier dragged through the streets of Paris with his face to the ground, hung from a gallows by his feet, and then thrown into the sewers; and the laws were not abrogated till the Revolution, which, having founded so many other forms of freedom, accorded the liberty of death. [W.E.H. Lecky, "History of European Morals," 1869]

In England, suicides were legally criminal if of age and sane, but not if judged to have been mentally deranged. The criminal ones were mutilated by stake and given degrading burial in highways until 1823.

Less than 275 years ago, the body of someone who died by suicide was defiled, mutilated, and discarded. Which is incredible considering the terrific amount of respect we human beings give to our dead. Respect given except when a human being willingly dies by their own hand. I will explore why I think that is in future posts.

It is only until very recently that organizations (both national and grass-roots) have begun celebrating the lives of those that died in the hopes that those struggling with suicidal thoughts don’t feel more isolated than they already feel they are. I’m proud to work with these organizations.