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Terminate is an old term, but its connotation meaning "to kill, assassinate" is quite recent ("to assassinate" is from 1975. ) unlike finish, whose meaning "to kill" is from 1755, according to etymonline.

To kill appears to be an obvious extension of the original meaning of terminate and its usage brings to mind the most famous "The Terminator" which is from 1984.

Questions:

  • Is the early usage of "terminate" meaning "to kill" AmE? Are its early usages mainly related to science fiction?

  • Has the Hollywood series of "Terminators" actually influenced the meaning and usage of the term? Is its usage mainly euphemistic as suggested by the ODO (while other dictionaries don't)?

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    I suspect this usage stemmed from the military euphemism terminate with extreme prejudice, i.e., assassinate, which (per Wikipedia) was used and explained in coverage of a 1969 Green Beret operation in southeast Asia, and further popularized in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now. – Brian Donovan May 22 '16 at 19:07
  • I have trouble believing that the term was never used to mean "kill" until it was popularized by the movies. Certainly gangsters in the 20s and 30s used multiple euphemisms for "murder", and "terminate" would be an obvious one. – Hot Licks May 23 '16 at 17:34
  • @HotLicks - you might have heard it used in gangster movies from the '70s. – user66974 May 23 '16 at 18:07
  • @Josh61 - They haven't made any real gangster movies since the 50s. – Hot Licks May 23 '16 at 18:10
  • @HotLicks - unluckily that doesn't prove its earlier usages, but Hollywood appears to have something to do with it. – user66974 May 23 '16 at 18:20
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Dictionary coverage of 'terminate' and 'with prejudice'

The phrase "with prejudice" is a legal term of long standing. Black's Law Dictionary, fourth edition (1968): offers this entry for it:

WITH PREJUDICE. The term, as applied to judgment of dismissal is as conclusive of rights of parties as if action had been prosecuted to final adjudication adverse to the plaintiff. [Case citation:] Fenton v. Thompson, 352 Mo. 199, 176 S.W.2d 456, 460 [1943].

A dismissal of a case "with prejudice" means that even though the judge did not permit the case to proceed to full adjudication on its merits, the plaintiff is barred from amending his or her suit to satisfy some shortcoming of the original filing; in effect, the judge has ruled that the suit is incapable of being corrected to the point where it meets a threshold of justiciability. In plain English, "dismissal with prejudice" means "Case dismissed—and don't come back."

Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) offers these definitions of terminate as a transitive verb:

terminate ... vt 1 a : to bring to an end : CLOSE {terminate a marriage by divorce} {terminate a transmission line} b : to form the conclusion of {review questions terminate each chapter} c : to discontinue the employment of {workers terminated because of slow business} 2 : to serve as an ending, limit, or boundary of 3 : ASSASSINATE, KILL

Definition 1(c) of terminate above may be the source of definition 3 (which doesn't appear in the Tenth Collegiate [1993] or any previous edition of the Collegiate Dictionary). In any event the phrase "termination of employment" has a particular legal meaning, according to Black's Law Dictionary:

TERMINATION OF EMPLOYMENT. Within policies providing that insurance shall cease immediately upon termination of employment, means a complete severance of relationship of employer and employee. [Citations omitted.]

The fact that terminate can mean "assassinate" without the additional wording "with extreme prejudice" suggests that the those last three words are invoking the legal notion that the authorities have already handed down a verdict (in this case, a death sentence) and that no considerations of due process stand in the way of execution of the sentence. I don't mean to argue that such judgments are valid as a matter of law—merely that the wording cloaks the judgment in a legal expression that implies that the decision is binding as a matter of law.


Early instances of 'terminate with prejudice' and 'terminate with extreme prejudice'

Instances of the phrase "terminate[d] with prejudice" appear in Google Books search results going back to at least 1941. From Institute in Personnel Administration (1941) [combined snippets]:

Since many persons who are not eligible for retirement and who must be separated for mental illness are permitted to resign, are terminated for "ill health," or are even terminated "with prejudice," it is impossible to estimate the total number actually leaving the service for this reason.

From Police volume 8 (1963) [combined snippets]:

An accurate key to the psychopathic personality will be revealed in a scrutiny of the employment and work record of the particular individual. Employment will normally be found to be rather sporadic, with various periods of unemployment, and with various periods of time between jobs. A close look at the individual periods of employment will usually reveal excessive absenteeism for little to no real reason; and termination usually effected either through being fired or otherwise terminated with prejudice.

And from Commonwealth ex rel. Montgomery v. Myers, 422 Pa. 180, 220 A.2d 859 (1966), reprinted in Pennsylvania State Reports (1967) [combined snippets]:

Were the trial judge of the view that the prosecution intentionally sought to infect the proceedings in order to abort the trial, the court's decision to terminate with prejudice to the Commonwealth's right to reprosecute would be entitled to great weight in the event that the issue was presented on review. This, however, is not such a case and the policy of double jeopardy designed to guard against such oppression has no present application.

Instances in which "terminated with prejudice" appears in court rulings where "with prejudice" has the meaning given in Black's Law Dictionary occur in books from 1958 and 1960.

The phrase "terminate with extreme prejudice" begins to appear as a euphemism for assassinate in 1969. In some of the earliest instances, the phrase arises in connection with assassination of people suspected of being double agents—and such agents were in some sense employees of the U.S. government or its branches (typically the CIA). From Newsweek, volume 74 (1969):

Over the next few days, the [Green] Berets contacted the CIA and asked for advice in dealing with Chuyen. According to the Berets' story, the CIA mission chief in Saigon refused to take a hand in the matter and the CIA strongly implied that Chuyen would have to be murdered—"terminated with extreme prejudice" was the alleged phrase. Thus on June 20, according to the U.S. Army specifications against the Berets, the suspected double agent was bundled into a 30-foot-long boat, drugged with morphine, shot in the head and dumped in a weighted sack into a shark-infested area of the South China Sea. The CIA steadfastly denies that any of it agents knew of the Berets' intention to commit the murder and claims that it had advised the Berets not to kill Chuyen.

From December, volumes 12–15 (1970[?]):

During the Green Beret murder affair, the phrase "termination with extreme prejudice" had figured prominently in statements by a defense lawyer who claimed it was accepted military jargon for authorizing the murder of believed double agents.

From Congressional Record (1971):

MODERATOR: Does the term exterminate, to terminate with extreme prejudice—are you familiar with that term?

OSBORN. There are two ways—yes—there are two ways to terminate an agent. When you are through with the agent, that is, when he serves no more function to you, you can do one of two things. You can terminate him by paying him an amount of money, thanking him for his service, swearing him to secrecy, and simply letting him go—that's without prejudice. There is termination with prejudice where the agent constitutes a threat either to your operations, to you personally as a case officer, to whatever has determined the threat, and you terminate him with prejudice by either killing the individual or perhaps relocating him in the—I remember one incident of an agent up in Phuo By who was relocated as a prisoner of war into a Chieu Hoy camp and reoriented—I'm not really familiar with the details of that, but the main idea was to, of course, neutralize the individual. I got orders a couple of times to terminate agents with prejudice because of things they had done which were considered illegal or in bad taste or threatening—bad security—while I was there [in Vietnam].

Not long after the term became known, however, it appears to have become a euphemism for arbitrary execution without even a decision higher in the chain of command to justify it. From Far Eastern Economic Review (1969) [combined snippets]:

His only defence was to play the part to the hilt, and one of his more endearing habits was to point a pistollike finger at anyone who incited his disapproval and to say loudly: “TWEP!” He explained drily: “Terminate With Extreme Prejudice."

An item in Verbatim, volume 8 (1982) [combined snippets] gives what I take to be the CIA side of the story:

terminate with extreme prejudice. This is now firmly planted in the public ethos as intelligence jargon for 'to murder,' again thanks to Time. I have terminated at least four agents with extreme prejudice myself, without ever infringing on the Sixth Commandment. To terminate simply means to 'sever contact' with an agent on friendly terms, usually because he is no longer needed or because he has lost his access to the target for which he was recruited. He is usually given contact instructions in case he ever needs to get in touch again, and his file is retired to Registry.

To terminate with prejudice means that a not will be put in his file strongly recommending that no further contact be initiated (nor will he be given the means to establish it). He has been a handling headache, whether insecure, inaccurate (or worse) in his reporting, unreliable, cheating on his expense account, or found to be engaged in criminal activities on the side.

To terminate with extreme prejudice, a bum notice is circulated to friendly liaison intelligence services, informing them that while he did indeed work for us, his conduct was so bad—outright fabrication of information or an attempt to perpetrate a major fraud—that we are warning them to have nothing to do with him if he appears on their doorstep, as he probably will.

Why the agency found it necessary to separate instances of "terminate with prejudice" (don't initiate contact because the guy is either corrupt or utterly unreliable) from instances of "terminate with extreme prejudice" (don't allow the guy to initiate contact with you because he is either corrupt or utterly unreliable) is not entirely clear from the unnamed gentleman's explanation. Nor does it indicate what term the agency would have used to indicate "assassinate this guy because we have determined that he's a dangerous double agent."


Conclusions

The expression "terminate with extreme prejudice" seems to have arisen during the Vietnam War as an instruction to assassinate an agent or other contact in the field. The idea underlying this euphemism may have come from termination in the sense of ending a person's employment, since the agents in question were working as spies or informers for the CIA or military intelligence.

But the word also invokes the legal notion of "with prejudice"—meaning that though a full-fledged adjudication has not run to completion, the legal force of the judge's dismissal of the suit is final, and the insufficient or otherwise faulty plea of the plaintiff is not amendable to make it acceptable to the court. In terms of an assassination order, "terminate" would seem to mean "kill," and "with extreme prejudice" would seem to imply "with no right of appeal from this order."

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  • And from the military usage the expression became more common through movies, I suppose, or it would have remained confined within its original context. – user66974 May 24 '16 at 7:27
  • I mean, how did the connotation of "to kill, assassinate" jumped from the military jargon into dictionaries as a "common" one? – user66974 May 24 '16 at 14:41
  • @Josh61: Unquestionably, Apocalypse Now (1979), for example, broadened public awareness of the phrase "terminate with extreme prejudice." And I suspect that The Terminator (1984) was hugely influential in popularizing terminate as a standalone synonym for assassinate. But I remember that public awareness of "terminate with extreme prejudice" was high from the moment newspapers and news magazines picked up on it as a U.S. military euphemism for assassination. The Vietnam War was very unpopular by 1969 anyway, and I think there was a backlash against the term's antiseptic blandness. ... – Sven Yargs May 24 '16 at 14:54
  • ...But the Ngram for "terminate with extreme prejudice" shows it as being very nearly as widespread in published writing in 1975 as it ever would be—and that's four years before Apocalypse Now. The Ngram for terminate in the sense of "kill" would be a much more sharply ascending graph, I'm sure, but Ngram can't separate that sense from the simpler "end" meaning. – Sven Yargs May 24 '16 at 14:58

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