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I would like to know whether “fatal injury” means (1) an injury which causes a death, (2) an injury which almost causes a death but not necessarily does, or (3) both (1) and (2) depending on the context.

I am confused because several Japanese-English dictionaries give “fatal injury” as a translation of both chimeishō (致命傷) and hinshi no jūshō (瀕死の重傷), while chimeishō means (1) and hinshi no jūshō means (2).

I am aware of another question about the word “fatal”, but it does not answer my question.

Edit: I changed the title of the question because the former title resulted in an ambiguity which I did not intend.

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5 Answers 5

up vote 24 down vote accepted

In any normal context, a fatal injury is one which either has already led to death, or appears certain to do so.

There will be rare circumstances where that appearance of impending death turns out to be mistaken, but in retrospect this would constitute a misuse of the word fatal.

The normal term for injuries which may well result in death is life-threatening injuries.

With due regard to @Hackworth, when and if it becomes apparent that a person who suffered a life-threatening injury will in fact survive, that could then be called a near-fatal injury. In loose speech people also use this expression for an injury which is not in fact life-threatening, but which could easily have been so had it been slightly different (for example, a knife-wound very close to the carotid artery).

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1  
Similarly we now call them near-drowning-incidents until you are sure the victim is dead! –  mgb Aug 21 '11 at 23:34
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Thank you for the clear explanation and for suggesting “life-threatening injury.” Also your last paragraph answered the two questions I was about to ask! (Whether these terms imply the person survives or not, and whether they also refer to an injury which could have cost life with a slight difference.) –  Tsuyoshi Ito Aug 22 '11 at 0:05
    
fatal should make the poor fella touch wood, if he could move. –  ZJR Aug 22 '11 at 2:28
    
@Tsuyoshi Ito: I expect there are a number of words/expressions for coming close to death, not necessarily suffering serious or even any injury. I'm not sure "near-fatal" is chief among them, but it does sometimes get used that way. I can't think of a more apt alternative phrase offhand, though. –  FumbleFingers Aug 22 '11 at 3:10
    
Sorry if I implied otherwise, but actually “life-threatening injury” is the very phrase I was looking for. It does not imply whether the person survives or not, and it excludes the cases such as a knife-wound very close to the carotid artery. Thank you very much! –  Tsuyoshi Ito Aug 22 '11 at 11:02

As a medical professional, I think the context should be taken into account. While I agree with FumbleFingers in principle, I think the speaker may have something to do with the meaning.

The official definition of fatal is:

adjective: resulting in, or capable of causing death

So to answer the question posed, if a person suffers a “fatal injury”, is there a possibility that the person's life will be saved?

The answer would be “yes” if they are alive at the time of the question. So, in the context of the Japanese words you posted:

  • If the person is dead and your are describing the injury, then 致命傷 is correct.
  • If the person is alive, and survival is possible (or likely), then 瀕死の重傷 is more correct.
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Thank you for making me realize that the title of my question was causing an ambiguity which I did not intend. I wanted to know the meaning of the word “fatal” or the phrase “fatal injury” (as is stated in the question text) instead of asking whether it is possible/appropriate to predict death. I changed the title of the question. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Aug 21 '11 at 23:51
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Regardless of the definition of "fatal" shown here, the common usage of "fatal injury" refers to an injury that has or will cause death. –  Alger Aug 22 '11 at 3:59
    
Well, it all depends on your definition of "death" as well. Given the current state of medical experise, I'm sure there are plenty of people walking around today who were at some point "dead" by most people's definition of the word, but were successfully "revived". –  FumbleFingers Aug 22 '11 at 16:29

Option (1) is correct, a "fatal" or "mortal" injury does inevitably lead to death. Option (2) would be a "near-fatal injury", option (3) can never be true.

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Thank you for the concise explanation and suggesting an alternative. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Aug 22 '11 at 0:06

We would say, "he's in critical condition," or "he has sustained critical injuries."

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You can not be fatally injured. You are either injured or dead.

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1  
Welcome to EL&U. Your assertion is at odds with the widespread use of fatally injured, fatal injury, and so on, and requires some explanation at the least. As this is a site for advanced English speakers, I would also advise you to adhere to conventional orthography. The site tour and review the help center will offer additional guidance. –  choster Dec 11 at 3:53
    
A fatal injury is one that causes death. The injury may be referred to after the death (as in a post mortem), in which case there is no doubt, but it could validly be called a fatal injury beforehand if death were clearly inevitable. –  itsbruce Dec 11 at 12:22

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