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Diagnose comes close to this meaning, but the result of a diagnosis is not usually a binary classification. I'd like a word or phrase that means to determine whether someone is alive or dead, or analogously, a word or phrase that means to determine whether a device is functioning or broken.

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I think "check vital state" is about as succinct as you'll find. – Mr.Wizard Jul 27 '12 at 17:39
I'm pretty sure there is no singular word for this. – Lynn Jul 27 '12 at 18:10
World's funniest joke has the answer! – RegDwigнt Jul 27 '12 at 18:41
What @Mr.Wizard said is perhaps most technically correct, but "check vital signs" is probably a more common phrase (in my experience, American). – The Photon Jul 27 '12 at 19:18
@Lynn I never understand why people think there is a single word for everything. After all, what’s the single word for making a single-word request? :) – tchrist Jul 27 '12 at 19:31

Not sure there is a single word for this- 'triage' is possibly more apt than diagnose as it has more of a sense of life and death. However, it also does not result in a binary classification.

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Probably still a good choice, since it means "to sort" and has a medical context. Presumably a device which is "not dead" will have a further sort applied to it. There is an image of a triage tag on the wikipedia page which, if modified slightly, would be perfect for use with devices. – horatio Jul 27 '12 at 17:03
I don't think this really fits. See jwpat7's comment below. "Triage" means classifying people for priority of treatment. Anyone who's already dead wouldn't be included in a triage. – Jay Jul 27 '12 at 17:23
@Jay: As emergency responders, the basic triage we're taught includes a category for dead/moribund (black tag). – Charles Jul 27 '12 at 20:07

Triage ("the process of determining the priority of patients' treatments based on the severity of their condition ... from the French verb trier, meaning to separate, sift or select") has been mentioned, but I'll write a bit more about it anyway. The wikipedia article on triage says

At its most primitive, those responsible for the removal of the wounded from a battlefield ... have divided victims into three categories:
• Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
• Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
• Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

Techniques of triage are taught in medical school (during emergency-room or critical-care rotations) to allow coping with catastrophes.

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For devices in computer networks, ping is the common word.

Ping the server to find if it's busy.

For human beings, check or check up stands for this meaning and is also easily understandable.

The doctor checked his pulse to ascertain his death.

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Ping sounds like a good word. I'm actually asking this question to get find a good variable name. I first wanted to name it EmailTracerRound - an email that checks to see if the email is going to the right place, but I decided that the reference might not be universally understandable. – Matthew Piziak Jul 27 '12 at 17:54
@MatthewPiziak: I do not know the spec details, but does EmailTracker fit your purpose? – Bravo Jul 27 '12 at 17:57
ping bre.a.t.hin' will give you 100% packet loss – asymptotically Jul 27 '12 at 17:58
@Shyam It would probably suffice, but it's actually a service that sends an email every so often to check if the email routing works. CheckEmail is probably the best name I can think of so far. – Matthew Piziak Jul 27 '12 at 18:06
I don't think check works, not by itself, but I do think check for a pulse is a nice idiomatic way to describe the process of checking whether something is dead or alive. It might even work for non-living things: Newsweek magazine recently indicated that its print edition doesn't have much of a pulse left. – J.R. Jul 27 '12 at 22:42

It's not one word, but viability check may fit your bill

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I cannot think of a one-word answer that means to check if somebody is alive or dead. However, if triage will not fit the bill, then you can consider palpation, which is "the act of feeling or pushing on various parts of a patient’s body to determine medical condition such as the normality of organs or the presence or absence of tumors, swelling, muscle tension, etc.". I've listed it here as, unlike diagnosis which is about identifying the cause of an illness, palpation is more about checking if something is wrong (or not). It, however, isn't applicable when it comes to checking for life or death.

Palpation is similar to diagnosis, albeit accomplished solely through touch, and is something performed as part of a diagnosis. A verb, palpate, also exists. It is not to be confused with palpitate or palpitation which are quite different.

The image below is captioned "Palpation of a man's chest":

Palpation of a man's chest

Incidentally, while checking to see if there was something along the lines of vitametry or vitameter, I came across a company named "LifeScan" peddling a glucometer under the moniker of "One Touch Vita meter".

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This looks more like a routine checkup; I don't really think he's making sure that guy is alive. :^) – J.R. Jul 27 '12 at 22:47
@J.R. I suggest that you also read the answer :) – coleopterist Jul 28 '12 at 6:53

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