In a February 18 opinion piece for Foreign Policy, the Pulitzer Prize–winning science journalist Laurie Garrett accuses former President Trump of pandemicide, a word she does not define but which in context clearly means “causing death by means of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Had I been a member of the House of Representatives during the body’s impeachment deliberations, I would have added to Trump’s indictment the crime of pandemicide, naming him as responsible for most of the COVID-19 deaths that transpired while he, the nation’s leader, was preoccupied with damning Joe Biden’s election victory. Trump’s failure to, as he vowed in his oath of office, “faithfully execute the office of president of the United States” promulgated a scale of lives lost exceeding anything experienced in the country since the Civil War, 160 years ago.
Pandemicide is a new word, although Garrett is not the first person to use it. In September 2020, David Bookbinder, a psychotherapist who lives near Boston, published an essay (also released as a free e-book) titled “Pandemicide,” in which he makes an argument similar to Garrett’s: that throughout the pandemic, “Trump & Company have encouraged the virus’s spread”:
This was not denial, not incompetence, not accidental. Not even manslaughter, because manslaughter is unpremeditated. It is pure, cold-blooded murder-by-virus.
One month earlier, in August 2020, Douglas A. Van Belle, a lecturer in media studies at the University of Wellington (New Zealand), and Thomas Jamieson, a professor of public administration at the University of Nebraska, published “Imperial Pandemicide” in Social Sciences Quarterly. This paper also assumes that readers understand the authors’ sense of pandemicide: large-scale death caused by a pandemic. The paper examines “the extreme impact of COVID-19 on former imperial empires”:
The clustering of former imperial powers as states suffering extreme initial impacts, combined with a brief qualitative commentary on the domestic politics related to the pandemic response, suggests that colonial imperialism has lingering domestic political effects.
Pandemicide does not follow the traditional formula for words with the -icide suffix, which comes from a Latin root meaning “cutting” or “killing.” (Incision and concise are related, but coincide isn’t.) In fratricide, homicide, parricide, and regicide, the first part of the word is the thing that’s killed: brother, man, relative, and monarch, respectively. Historically, all of these words first referred to the killing action and later gained a second sense of “the person doing the killing.”
That’s generally true of more-recent -cide coinages as well. Verbicide—literally “the murder of a word”—was coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858) to mean the deliberate distortion or weakening of a word’s meaning. It doesn’t mean “death by language.” Genocide (1944) refers to the killing of a population, not a murdering horde. Spermicide (1931) is a substance that kills sperm, not murder-by-sperm. (Beginning in the late 19th century, -cide and -icide coinages often referred to substances rather than people: insecticide, pesticide, fungicide.)
So pandemicide has been greeted with some befuddlement, much of it disingenuous. On Reddit, discussion of Garrett’s essay mostly stalled on the meaning of the word: “Is pandemicide even a word? Shit, he was so incomprehensibly bad we have to make up new words to describe him.” “If it is a word, it means killing a pandemic. He’s guilty of many things, but I would never accuse him of that.” “He killed a pandemic, did he?”
But in fact there’s been a drift toward a new meaning of -icide neologisms for several decades.
Take genericide, a term in trademark law meaning “the process by which a brand name loses its distinctive identity as a result of being used to refer to any product or service of its kind”—in other words, death by genericization. Genericide is what happened to aspirin, heroin, cellophane, and escalator, which have lost their trademark protection and are now spelled without capitalization. Genericide first appeared in print, according to the OED, in a November 1972 issue of the Wisconsin State Journal: “Dorothy Fey, executive director of the United States Trademark Assn., calls this dread process ‘genericide’.” The word merits an OED comment:
The formation is unusual, as suffixation in -icide comb. form1 would normally be expected to refer to the destruction, rather than the acquisition, of what is denoted by the first element. In this instance it is probably the brand name that is conceived as being destroyed or impaired by the process of becoming generic, although the motivation may simply be the generally negative connotations of formations in -icide comb. form1.
In recent years there’s been a strong pull toward this type of -icide coinage, especially when the word is meant to be humorous. The long list of -icide words in OneLook Dictionary Search includes many Urban Dictionary entries. Here are a few:
- boobicide: “killing someone with your large breasts,” i.e., death by mammary (not breast death)
- beericide: “the intentional killing of oneself through excessive consumption of beer,” i.e., death by beer
- foodicide: “when someone eats so much they feel as if they will die,” i.e., death by food
- momicide: not killing one’s mother (that’s matricide) but “when a mother kills her own children”
Pandemicide follows this new pattern, in which the front part of -icide compounds is the subject, not the object, of the killing.
As we’ve seen, -icide words already shifted once from their original “action” sense to “human agent” and then again to “inanimate substance.” There’s really nothing to prevent yet another shift if circumstances—like, say, a pandemic—demand it and human ingenuity rises to the occasion.