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I remember reading somewhere that to evacuate a person is a medical procedure, and not something to be done during an earthquake. (I thought it was in Fowler, but I just looked and couldn't see it). The point is that it is the building that is being evacuated, not the people. "Evacuate" comes from the Latin word for "to empty out".

If this is so, what is happening to the people that are being helped out of a building that is being evacuated?

I was reminded of this question during an episode of CSI: Miami (don't judge me) where someone tells flame-haired Horatio Caine that "You helped evacuate me yesterday". What should she have said to him? "You helped evacuate the building I was in" sounds a little circumlocutionary.

I should have anticipated answers saying "You can use evacuate like that". As far as I can tell, the OED doesn't allow "evacuate" to be the verb that you do to people when removing them from a burning building. So there isn't quite a consensus that I'm barking up the wrong tree, although the concise OED allows "to remove from a place of danger".

Let's say I didn't want to do that for the (perhaps mistaken) reason that it was worth having a distinction between what is being made empty and what it is being emptied of. Let's say I'm super-worried about there being some confusion about whether Horatio helped the woman get to the hurricane shelter or whether he helped perform an unlicensed medical procedure on her. Both might be legitimate readings of "He helped her evacuate". I want this to refer to the latter, so how would I unambiguously talk about the former?

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You're evacuating them. –  z7sg Ѫ Aug 8 '11 at 13:14
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+1 for 'circumlocutionary' –  whoabackoff Aug 8 '11 at 13:14
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It is peeving because you keep saying they shouldn't say it, or that evacuate means "to make empty". That's wrong. Evacuate means: (1) "remove (someone) from a place of danger to a safer place" (2) "remove air, water, or other contents from (a container)" –  z7sg Ѫ Aug 8 '11 at 15:18
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@Seamus: I have to say I think the basic premise of the question is a bit odd. There's general agreement that evacuate is a perfectly valid verb which fits your context better than any alternative. You seem to be asking for the nearest equivalent to that "best fit" word, but I can't really see why. We don't avoid using the word movement, for example, just in case someone thinks we're talking about bowel movements rather than part of a symphony. –  FumbleFingers Aug 8 '11 at 15:54
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It will perhaps be interesting to know that evacuo was not a word at all in the Latin of the Golden Age, nor in that of the Republic. Cicero would have balked at it. At any rate, he would have disapproved of most of the ways we mutilate Latin. And if one thinks of the sordid origins of the Germanic languages, one loses all pride whatsoever. So I say each case should be judged on its own: whether ancestor of a certain word was used thus or so in Latin is only one of the several arguments we have to determine proper style. –  Cerberus Aug 8 '11 at 17:44
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7 Answers 7

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I'd say that you are rescuing them, or helping them exit the building.

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e·vac·u·ate

  1. Remove (someone) from a place of danger to a safe place.
  2. Leave or cause the occupants to leave (a place of danger).

Evacuate is the correct word here.

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See edit: let's say I don't want to use evacuate. –  Seamus Aug 8 '11 at 14:36
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Here are some rough (and in some cases rather arguable) synonyms of evacuate

  • abandon
  • desert
  • withdraw
  • move out

They do not bear the same meaning as evacuate, but it is possible to use them instead of evacuate. You just need to explicitly describe the situation.

Sailors abandoned ship the moment it become obvious they can't save her.

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Horatio did none of these things to the poor woman in the question. Well, maybe he helped her withdraw, but that seems a stretch... None has the connotation of evacuate. –  Seamus Aug 8 '11 at 15:11
    
Well, he helped her to abandon the building, didn't he? I told the synonyms are arguable :) –  Philoto Aug 8 '11 at 15:14
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In addition to the to make empty definition, several dictionaries also list to remove (persons or things) from a place, as a dangerous place or disaster area, for reasons of safety or protection: to evacuate the inhabitants of towns in the path of a flood.

So evacuate works in either case.

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I agree with your narrower use of evacuate. (I thought there was a reference in either Strunk & White or Chicago Manual of Style, but I have not found it. Something about firemen and children and a school.)

You are being careful, rather than circumloquacious with either

"You helped evacuate the building in which I lay unconscious."

or

"You helped evacuate my stomach when I had ingested an excess of hallucinogens."

However, these are not the kind of sentences that either most CSI fans could parse or the CBS writers would write.

(I can just imagine the camera lingering on Horatio as he takes two beats, puts on his sunglasses, and stands three-quarters to the camera with his arms akimbo. "Miss Winworth, it was my privilege to do so.")

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What is the edition and page number where the use of evacuate is prescribed? –  z7sg Ѫ Aug 8 '11 at 17:11
    
It is not in 4th ed., 3rd ed., or the 1918 original. I have one more to check when I get home. –  rajah9 Aug 8 '11 at 19:07
    
I had a quick look in Strunk & White, but it wasn't in the index so I gave up... –  Seamus Aug 9 '11 at 10:01
    
I looked under "misused words," but could not find it. I can file this under "misattributed to Elements of Style." I'm editing my answer. –  rajah9 Aug 9 '11 at 13:16
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  • Ushering
  • Guiding
  • Evacuating
  • Ejecting
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As others have noted, it is completely correct to say, "You evacuated me from the building." I just checked two dictionaries and both list "to withdraw inhabitants from a threatened area" (with slightly different wording) as one of the definitions.

So when the questioner says that this usage is incorrect and the person should have used different wording, this is simply wrong. Yes, the word has multiple meanings, but this is one of them. Actually in ordinary usage, I think it's the most common meaning.

It's certainly possible that in any given case, the meaning could be ambiguous. (This word is hardly unique in that way. Lots of words have multiple definitions that can sometimes result in ambiguity.) If you are talking to a nurse who performs enemas, and who once helped you escape from a burning building, yes, "You evacuated me last month" could be ambiguous.

In practice, though, I think the poster has it backwards. If you use the word "evacuate", most English-speaking people think of fleeing a place of danger or helping other to flee a place of danger, not the emptying of body contents. If anything, you'd more likely need to clarify that you meant the medical procedure and not getting out of someplace.

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