Wednesday, 1 December 2010

From Euthanasia to Assisted Dying with the OED

The Oxford English Dictionary is a great teaching resource, especially now that it's online and free to use  if you have a county library card. (See this website, for example.)

Tracking the history of certain contentious terms can be a profitable activity. Take "euthanasia", for instance. Its primary meaning, according to the OED, is "a gentle and easy death" and the first citation is from 1646 when Bishop J. Hall wrote in Balme of Gilead: "But let me prescribe, and commend to thee, my sonne, this true spirituall meanes of thine happy Euthanasia."

"Euthanasia" only came to mean "the action of inducing a gentle and easy death used esp. with reference to a proposal that the law should sanction the putting painlessly to death of those suffering from incurable and extremely painful diseases" in the late 19th Century.

"Assisted suicide" (meaning "suicide effected with the assistance of another person; esp. the taking of lethal drugs, provided by a doctor for the purpose, by a patient considered to be incurable") first appeared in print in 1976.

"Assisted dying", the currently favoured term of those lobbying for a change in the law, has not yet entered the OED.

Why these changes have taken place is, of course, not a matter for the writers of the OED but the question could provide the basis for a highly profitable classroom discussion.

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