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I hear it more on more frequently on the news, as in:

The North Korean regime has disappeared scores of dissidents over the past twenty years.

Has disappear always been used in such a way, as a transitive verb? If not, can early instances be traced back to some period?

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Interesting question. I did a Google Ngram search for 'disappeared them' and got an earliest use in 1962, though the whole context wasn't shown so it's not certain how it's intended. –  Gaston Ümlaut Apr 21 '13 at 11:00

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

OED shows that disappear has been used as a transitive verb for a surprisingly long time:

3. trans. To cause to disappear.
1897 Chem. News 19 Mar. 143 : We progressively disappear the faces of the dodecahedron.

However its euphemistic use is a bit more recent, and specifically relates to the rule of the Argentine military junta in the late 1970s.

b. trans. euphem. To abduct or arrest (a person), esp. for political reasons, and subsequently to kill or detain as a prisoner, without making his or her fate known.Freq. with reference to Latin America.
[Originally and chiefly after American Spanish desaparecido n.]
1979 N.Y. Times Mag. 21 Oct. 66 While Miss Iglesias ‘was disappeared’, her family's writ of habeus corpus‡, filed on her behalf, was rejected by the courts.

desaparecido
Any of the many people who disappeared in Argentina during the period of military rule between 1976 and 1983, presumed killed by members of the armed services or of the police. Usu. in pl.
1977 Time 11 Apr. 45/3 Amnesty International...accused the military of arbitrary detention, torture, summary executions and the ‘disappearance’ of at least 500 suspects... Amnesty charges that many of the desaparecidos were innocent citizens abducted and murdered by soldiers and police in mufti.

‡ OED really does quote habeus corpus, but it doesn't add "sic" so I don't know where the mistake lies.

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The modern, euphemistic, transitive use can be found many times before the OED's 1979 citation, in Joseph Heller's 1961 novel Catch-22:

She had urgent news about Dunbar.

'They're going to disappear him,' she said.

Yossarian squinted at her uncomprehendingly. 'They're what?' he asked in surprise, and laughed uneasily. 'What does that mean?'

'I don't know. I heard them talking behind a door.'

'Who?'

'I don't know. I couldn't see them. I just heard them say they were going to disappear Dunbar.'

'Why are they going to disappear him?'

'I don't know.'

'It doesn't make sense. It isn't even good grammar. What the hell does it mean when they disappear somebody?'

'I don't know.'

Jesus, you're a great help!'

'Why are you picking on me?' Nurse Duckett protested with hurt feelings, and began sniffing back tears. 'I'm only trying to help. It isn't my fault they're going to disappear him, is it? I shouldn't even be telling you.'

And later on:

"What does Major Major say?"

"We never see Major Major. He seems to have disappeared."

"I wish we could disappear him!" Colonel Cathcart blurted out from the corner peevishly. "The way they did that fellow Dunbar."

'Oh, there are plenty of other ways we can handle this one,' Colonel Korn assured him confidently, and continued to Piltchard and Wren, 'Let's begin with the kindest. Send him to Rome for a rest for a few days. Maybe this fellow's death really did hurt him a bit.'

And again:

'They'll probably try.'

'What did Major Major say?'

'Major Major's gone.'

'Did they disappear him?'

'I don't know.'

'What will you do if they decide to disappear you?'

'I'll try to stop them.'

And finally:

'No hope at all, is there?'

'No, no hope at all,' Major Danby conceded. He looked up after a while with a half-formed notion.

'Wouldn't it be nice if they could disappear us the way they disappeared the others and relieve us of all these crushing burdens?'

Yossarian said no.

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+1 Thanks for that. A great book! –  Jubobs Apr 21 '13 at 17:10

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