A recent usage of the word “murder”

I’ve been seeing a word usage on the rise lately that I find difficult and tense-making, and I want to talk a little about it.

It’s the use of the word or prefix murder as a sort of an adjective, meaning something like “endearingly very good at being violent for purposes that I approve of or at least don’t mind.”

Some examples:

  • A character in a popular science fiction series who’s known as Murderbot.
  • An article headline about the TV series Picard that referred to two of the characters as “Romulan Murder Mom and Dad.”
  • Various friends’ affectionate references to (for example) their cats killing wild rodents. I’m not remembering any of the exact phrases I’ve seen, but the sentiment has been along the lines of “My cat is such a cute little murderboy!”

And these kinds of phrases always make me wince a little, because my father was murdered (fifteen years ago today as I write this). So to me, murder isn’t a mildly interesting but distant concept; it’s a deeply personal horrific event that cost me my father, changed my life for the worse, and still has traumatic aftereffects fifteen years later.

I do understand that words have multiple meanings, that we adapt words for different purposes, and that sometimes turning a horrific concept into something whimsical and darkly funny can be a useful way of shielding ourselves from pain. I’m not asking anyone to stop using the word murder in this way.

But I continue to feel that it’s a good idea to be aware of the potential effects of our metaphors and word use on others, and to make conscious choices about such things.

I’ve written about that general topic before, in a 2012 post about violent rhetoric and metaphors. But I feel like this use of the word murder is specific enough to be worth bringing up on its own.

PS: I suspect some of you are gearing up to tell me that this use of murder is perfectly justified because the characters and creatures in question really do kill people or other animals. I’m not interested in arguing about that. I’m just saying that the specific word murder (outside of this cute-prefix usage) most often refers to a human illegally and intentionally killing another human, ending the life of someone who probably had friends and family to mourn their passing; and thus that the cutesifying of the word murder may be difficult for some of us to hear.

PPS: It’s entirely possible that plenty of people who’ve lost a loved one to murder are fine with this usage. I’m certainly not speaking for everyone who’s been in that situation. Different people have different reactions to things.

PPPS: Even if you strongly disagree with me about this, I’d like to ask you to be gentle in your response. This is a difficult and painful topic for me.

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