Recently, there is a lengthy discussion around "liquidate" word in another SE question and its meaning. I'm wondering is it correct to use "liquidate" instead of "kill" in that particular situation (i.e. referring to some terrorist acts and killing innocent people)? If its meaning is equivalent to "kill" how prevalent is using this word among native English speakers? I appreciate any recommendation or suggestion.

Some of those discussions are mentioned here for reference:

  • "liquidate" word seems "unnecessarily insensitive (and esoteric) way to refer to the tragic deaths of humans".
  • Also "liquidate" word may bring this image up: "Liquidated in this context also brings up imagery of liquefaction... an equally disturbing image when applied to people"
  • Some other opinion: " It's a word used in James Bond and similar fictions, also e.g. when describing mafia murders, also e.g. killing political opponents (sometimes en masse), or e.g. genocide, a synonym for "assassinate"; perhaps it even comes across as dispassionate somehow, i.e. professional extra-legal killing."
  • The one that bring "liquidate" up to that question defend his/her choice as: "From the Oxford American Dictionarey: LIQUIDATE (V): TO ELIMINATE, ESPECIALLY BY VIOLENT MEANS; KILL."
  • Someone mentioned it is common word for referring to genocide or mass murdering: "if you read history about "death squads" for example, or political infighting, genocide ... it's used twice in Wikipedia's article on Stalin, for example. Perhaps it was originally a euphemism, like "eliminate"."
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    Welcome to EL&U. The major dictionaries all include a meaning of liquidate that means to destroy or eliminate someone or something. If the dictionaries you checked or other research you attempted have been insufficient, please edit your post to explain why.
    – choster
    Oct 9, 2018 at 16:57
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    You should include some more of the discussion in those comments in your question here, especially since they’re quite likely to be deleted on the Aviation question. As it stands now, your question is half-answered by a dictionary lookup, which makes it at least borderline off-topic; but the discussion in the comments there is much more interesting and more difficult to answer easily. Edit that in and include some dictionary definitions, and then you’ll have a much better question which will be much less likely to be closed. Oct 9, 2018 at 17:06
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    @AloneProgrammer Those comments are integral to the question. Just like a good answer should not depend on an external link to be complete, so should a question not. Plus, those comments are off-topic on the other question, and there’s every chance they’ll be gone in a few hours. Then the interested reader won’t be able to go and read them there. Oct 9, 2018 at 18:32
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    Please limit comments to helping to improve the post: friendly clarifying questions, suggestions for improving the question, relevant but transient information, and explanations of your actions. Please avoid discussion, debate, or giving answers in comments. A welcoming place for discussion of posts (or anything else) is our English Language & Usage Chat.
    – MetaEd
    Oct 9, 2018 at 19:58

3 Answers 3


I think it has a precise meaning i.e. it refers to a certain type of killing. The meaning is derived from its etymology, and from the contexts in which it was first used and in which it has been used since.

Because it is a "term of art" not everyone will be familiar with it -- however its use (in the right context) is not inappropriate for all that, IMO (e.g. because it has a specific meaning).

If its meaning is equivalent to "kill" how prevalent is using this word among native English speakers?

It's common enough.

It's not on-topic in everyday conversation, thankfully -- so depending on what you read perhaps you've never heard of it -- but e.g. it appears twice in Wikipedia's article on Stalin:

In January 1930, the Politburo approved a measure to liquidate the existence of the kulaks as a class

It is hard for me to reconcile the courtesy and consideration he showed me personally with the ghastly cruelty of his wholesale liquidations.

Perhaps it was originally a euphemism (like "eliminate" ... or "final solution" or similar) -- these days its meaning is plain, unambiguous.

I'm wondering is it correct to use "liquidate" instead of "kill" in that particular situation?

Yes, it's appropriate in-context.

I think it's used in these kinds of context:

  • Killing individuals:

    • Targeted assassination of political opponents
    • Also e.g. in when mafiosi kill each other when vying for control
    • James Bond and similar fictions
  • Killing groups:

    • Killing political opponents en masse, e.g. death squads, concentration camps
    • Genocide, a.k.a. "ethnic cleansing"

Apparently its etymology implies, "remove an obstacle":

Sense of "clear away" (a debt) first recorded 1755. The meaning "wipe out, kill" is from 1924, possibly from Russian likvidirovat, ultimately from the Latin word.

IMO a "liquidation sale" for example isn't just "convert to cash" it's also "get rid of unwanted stuff".

You might think that using it now (to mean "killing") is insensitive, but within the last century it has meant killing, I don't think there's really a nice way to say that. Yes it puts me in mind of people being killed, violently or slowly (using, in practice, any number of grotesque, lethal interventions that I won't begin to list here); I don't see how it's possible to put any kind of good gloss on it.

I think it's especially appropriate (i.e. the right meaning) when the killing is extra-legal (e.g. criminal), or pseudo-legal (e.g. totalitarian regimes), and premeditated -- but excluding war (except civil war), excluding (accidental) manslaughter, and excluding common criminals (e.g. murders associated with robbery or domestic violence).

So it's appropriate to use it to describe the 9/11 hijackers -- i.e. criminals or political assassins, killing people (e.g. the flight crew) as part of a pre-planned plan, removing an "obstacle".

  • Leaving the comment here as I think this answer is the closest, but think it is just missing emphasis in the clinical/sterile nature of the term (which is likely why some took offence at its useage). Making a suggested edit to incorporate this. Oct 10, 2018 at 12:00
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    It's clinical/sterile like e.g. "ethnic cleansing" is. I personally classify it as, you know, monstrous, sociopathic, evil (I'm not a big fan of war or simple murder, either). I'm not entirely inclined to accept your edit though, because it speculates on the feelings of other people. I might already be on slightly thin ice, here, in claiming (rightly IMO) that the word has the "meaning" which I think it does. But yes I think it (the word) helps to allude to the alleged motive or mindset of the killers, the purposeful intent of the killing (and lets the suffering of the victims go unsaid).
    – ChrisW
    Oct 10, 2018 at 12:16
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    I'll buy that. Didn't love my attempt but just felt it should be flagged given the context of the question. Oct 11, 2018 at 2:15
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    Despite what was quoted in the OP, the more frequent objection in the original comments was that several ("native english-speaking") people had never heard the word being used to mean "kill" - and on finding proof of that in the dictionary, wondered whether it was a common usage.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 11, 2018 at 12:09
  • I disagree with the liquidation sale part. Liquid assets is an economic term for assets that are cash or can be converted into cash fast. Liquidating something in an economic sense means making an illiquid asset liquid. I don't see where you're getting the "unwanted" from in that context. especially as the liquidation sale itself is mostly unwanted, so the assets would rather be wanted but have to be sold anyways.
    – DonQuiKong
    Oct 12, 2018 at 7:52

liquidate verb
liq·ui·date | ˈli-kwə-ˌdāt
liquidated; liquidating

transitive verb
(1) : to determine by agreement or by litigation the precise amount of (indebtedness, damages, or accounts)
(2) : to determine the liabilities (see LIABILITY sense 2) and apportion assets toward discharging the indebtedness of
1b : to settle (a debt) by payment or other settlement
liquidate a loan
2 archaic : to make clear
3 : to do away with especially by killing
was hired to liquidate a certain businessman
4 : to convert (assets) into cash
liquidated his securities

intransitive verb
1 : to liquidate debts, damages, or accounts
2 : to determine liabilities (see LIABILITY sense 2) and apportion assets toward discharging indebtedness

It does appear as a term that would make sense in your context. To my ear, it is not a common usage, though, and evokes meaning through imagining "liquidating assets" in terms of a person. This gets confusing because liquidating assets does not eliminate them entirely, but converts them from physical goods to raw monetary value; how that would apply to a person, I don't see the connection. The dictionary says so, but ... I don't buy it.

A more common word to use here might be eliminate, terminate, or simply remove.

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    liquidating assets has nothing to do with eliminating them; it's selling them off entirely. And "then they were gone" [Agatha Christie]
    – Lambie
    Oct 9, 2018 at 18:59

The term liquidate dates back to the 16th century but its more common contemporary connotations are more recent. As suggested by Etymonline the sense “to kill” probably derives from a Russian usage of the same Latin root.

1570s, of accounts, "to reduce to order, to set out clearly" (a sense now obsolete), from Late Latin or Medieval Latin liquidatus, past participle of liquidare "to melt, make liquid, make clear, clarify," from Latin liquidus "fluid, liquid, moist" (see liquid (adj.)). Sense of "clear away" (a debt) first recorded 1755. The meaning "wipe out, kill" is from 1924, possibly from Russian likvidirovat, ultimately from the Latin word.

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