Essay: Of Words That Ravage, Pillage, Spoil

When the Federal Government launched a program last fall to gas chickens—more than 7 million so far—in an effort to contain an influenza virus in Pennsylvania, it said it had "depopulated" the birds. "We use that terrible word depopulation to avoid saying slaughter," explained a federal information officer, David Goodman.

Actually, it is not a terrible word but a rather distinguished one, derived from the Latin depopulare and meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "to lay waste, ravage, pillage, spoil." Shakespeare used it in Coriolanus when he had the tribune Sicinius ask,...

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