I got this note from a literary agent and am curious about usage of the word suicide. I had written, "my father was a suicide." Which sounds a little archaic but wanted to avoid saying "committed suicide" and/or "Killed himself."

She wrote: Suicide should not be used in place of personhood – you don’t say “was a car accident” or “was an aneurysm”

What do you think?

  • I think she is right. My father killed himself or suicided. As weird as that sounds, I personally dislike committed suicide because it sounds like a crime. Or My father took his own life. – Lambie Apr 29 at 13:57
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    This question seems related. – KillingTime Apr 29 at 14:01
  • Reason for changing "with" in your text: books.google.com/ngrams/… (on top of the extremely small frequency for "with", all results are false positives) – LPH Apr 29 at 14:15
  • My father's end was a suicide? My father ended in suicide? – Yosef Baskin Apr 29 at 14:20
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    @Lambie - While some dictionaries do list "suicide" as a verb, it's not very common/idiomatic, at least in the US. – Hot Licks Apr 29 at 19:49

This is perfectly correct since this person did commit suicide; this is a formal term. You find the following definition of it in OALD, n° 3.

[countable] (formal) a person who commits suicide

As this dictionary (OALD) is aimed at present day learners, there is no possibility of this word being archaic. A complete definition of it is found in the SOED.

2. A person who commits suicide. Also, a person who attempts to commit suicide.
First attested use: mid 18th century


If the point is to soft-pedal "committed suicide" or "killed himself," then the common phrasing is "take one's own life" (e.g., "My father took his own life.").

While calling your father "a suicide" isn't ungrammatical and doesn't definitively misuse the word "suicide" (see def. 3), it also isn't soft-pedaling it, which seems to be your aim, nor is it politically correct, much like how calling someone "a gay" or "a cripple" isn't politically correct. Pointing that out seems to be your literary agent's aim.

Calling someone "a gay," "a cripple," or "an anything" that is often highly charged with bigotry, judgment, or controversy is politically incorrect, is rude, the only exception being maybe if that person nominatively rather than adjectivally self-identifies as that. That's because when you call someone that thing, you are making that thing the person's identity, like that's what defines that person as a person, thus defining that person's personhood, which is especially true in this case since it represents a single deed, a single deed of your father's in an entire lifetime of deeds that perhaps shouldn't be overshadowed by it.

What your literary agent is doing isn't telling you it's ungrammatical for you to call your father "a suicide" or telling you you've misused the word "suicide" as it is defined in the dictionary. Rather, what your literary agent is doing is warning you off calling your father "a suicide" so that you don't expressly make "suicide" the defining act of your father's life, as if his suicide was all he was. Not only is calling your father "a suicide" politically incorrect at best and rude at worst, inaccurate since he was far more than that one act and deserves to be remembered for more than just that, and, most of all, unkind, but it's also hurtful towards yourself.

Words have weight because words, especially when repeated, convince, not just others but also ourselves. The words we choose influence, color, and codify our own feelings and opinions. By you calling your father "a suicide," you are chipping away at the identity — or the "personhood," as your literary agent put it — of your father in your own mind by dripping the poison into your own ear that a suicide, his suicide, is what he was, is all he was.

Now, police, hospital staff, mortuary personnel, etc. may in internal communications call your father "a suicide" to economize language by referring to your father as what about him is most salient in respect to the work they do, but even then, its appropriateness is debatable, which is why such organizations so often expressly advise employees not to use that terminology in external communications, like with family members, the press, etc. For a family member to call a loved one who committed suicide "a suicide" is unusual because family members, of all people, knew them and know "a suicide" is not who they were as a person but was just something they did in their final moments and generally want to remember them for who they were as a person in life and not for their suicide.


I would use "Die by suicide"

For more information check: https://www.suicideinfo.ca/resource/suicideandlanguage/

  • Hi Liz, welcome to the site. Could you include an excerpt from that link that shows the phrase in use? This helps answers to be self-contained in a way and prevents link rot. Here's the tour and the help center. – livresque Apr 30 at 1:02

“... was a suicide” is perfectly grammatical: Your literary agent wants to avoid it on different grounds. The same advice is given in an article by the International Risk Management Institute:

[U]sing "suicide" as a noun to describe a person ("the suicide was wheeled into the morgue") is considered dehumanizing and reductionist. When we identify a person solely by his or her mental illness ("He is bipolar."), we have diminished that individual's wholeness. We wouldn't say, "He was a heart attack." Instead, we need to define a person by his or her life, not the manner of death, and say, "He was a person who died of suicide; he also loved to play golf, brew beer, and climb mountains." Or: "She is a teacher, writer, and animal lover who lives with a bipolar condition." So, let's put people first and focus on their resilience.

Suicide is a very sensitive subject and the language you use to refer to it matters. (In this case it’s about respecting those who have died in this manner, but in other cases it’s a matter of not sending the wrong messages, or, more specifically, “reporting in a way that has been shown in the research to increase suicide risk”.)

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