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Derrick Bird, a divorced man living with his mother in a small town in northwest England, was said to have been having a row with his brother about a will, and had mentioned to his workmates that he was worried about a possible $100,000 tax bill or even a jail sentence for tax evasion. His workmates teased him about being a loser with women. Then the day came when he told a friend darkly, "You won't be seeing me again". He said his last words to fellow taxi drivers: "There's going to be a rampage tomorrow." And although they knew Mr Bird owned a collection of guns, his friends and workmates did nothing about what he said. They told no one. The next day he shot and killed his twin brother, and the family solicitor, and two of his fellow cabbies, and then drove around several small towns for three hours shooting people at random. He killed eight more innocent strangers: a realtor, a farmer, a retired couple, a mole catcher, a woman shopping, an unmarried senior citizen delivering leaflets, a couple of retired workers… He wounded a dozen more. Blood ran in the streets of tiny rural towns where everyone knew everyone. Finally he drove to some woodland and (you can feel the usual journalistic cliché coming up) he turned the gun on himself. He had actually used the stock word rampage in his warning to his workmates; but they didn't listen, and didn't tell the police. We should pay much closer attention to the words people actually use.

A commenter named Cecily (I take the liberty of elevating her question into the main body of the post here) said to me:

Words are important, but I think there are two dangers with what you say:

1. Blaming his colleagues, some of whom were victims or closely connected to victims.

2. If they had contacted the police, what are the odds of it being taken seriously, given that the consensus seems different from what is normally reported about such killers, i.e. that he was a pleasant, sociable man (albeit one who lived with his mother)?

And I agree with her entirely: I intend no blame. I merely reflect on the intensely sad fact that this man actually said what he was going to do, using the key journalistic term rampage, but his friends and workmates couldn't hear it, couldn't believe it. I don't want to claim they wrongly failed to act and should be censured; far from it. They must be much more distraught than the rest of us, because they are living with it. But after events like this (which, as I said before, are so horribly common that "before turning the gun on himself" has become a high-frequency cliché) people always start asking whether it could have been known in advance that it was going to happen, and whether it could have been stopped. We cannot ignore the fact that in this case the mass murderer clearly signaled what he intended to do, using an unmistakable word. Yet still the event seems to have been unstoppable. Even in a country where handguns are so extremely illegal that the members of the UK Olympic team for the pistol-shooting event cannot own the kind of gun they compete with and have to travel abroad to practice on ranges in other countries.

Sometimes it is desperately important that we should hear what is being said to us, but although we hear it we somehow do not take it in. In this sense language lets us down. The utterances have no communicative effect.


  1. Aaron Toivo said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 5:31 am

    How do we tell the difference between a substantive threat and blowing off steam — in which claiming you will do horrible things serves as an emotional stand-in for actually doing them?

    In my life I've heard death threats, stated intentions to beat someone to a bloody pulp, even wild-eyed declarations of intent to blow up buildings, none of which ever happened. And each time I did nothing, beyond hope they were just talking crazy and not actually crazy. There's some kind of self-preservation instinct that drives one not to involve oneself (which IME tends to win no matter how ethically bankrupt, for all sorts of people who would in general not hurt a fly). Plus the odds are not on the side of the threat actually being serious, which brings up fear of causing an unnecessary uproar over nothing. Sometimes in life it's just plain hard to know what you should do.

    [Exactly so, Aaron. That's my message. I find myself hoping that if someone quiet and sociable told me there was "going to be a rampage", I would do something, and carnage would be stopped. On the other hand, I don't want to be the sort of nervous ninny who runs to the police when an angry colleague says "I'm gonna do something about this; you'll see." Sometimes it's hard to know what you should do. I find myself hoping I would know what to do and would do the right thing; but it's only a hope, not a confident belief. —GKP]

  2. James Moughan said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 6:06 am

    The probability of someone executing something this awful are always so low as to be neglegible.

    And if they had reported it, what would you want to have happen? Should he be arrested for those words, should the police put him under 24 hour watch?

    [A visit from a constable who would ask a few questions and listen carefully to the way the man spoke might have done wonders in this case. It might at least have been possible for the police force to spring into action a little quicker: every killing was reported, but the police apparently go nowhere near him during the three hours of the rampage; they caught up with him only when they found his dead body. —GKP]

  3. Nick Lamb said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 6:07 am

    To even be sure this was the right thing we'd need a complicated analysis. As with medical screening programs the big problem is the rate of type I errors and their cost (financial and otherwise).

    As Aaron explains, "dark" threats are commonplace, and like the miraculous license plate noticed by Richard Feynman they may only seem significant later if we examine things out of order, starting with a rare murder spree and then rewinding back to things said (or reported as being said) the night before. We must be rigorous if we're to draw correct conclusions.

    So, how often do people make threats which we would reasonably put in this category (note that the threats were vague, and so we should include similarly vague threats like "You won't be laughing tomorrow, I'll see to that"). And how much would we spend investigating such threats and potentially acting on them? Then, we can work out how effective this strategy would be, and see if it makes sense.

    I would not be surprised if the answer is that to save one bystander death (murdering your brother, or even your solicitor is not so unusual and would not make national headlines on a typical day, so we should not count these deaths in our analysis) costs say $50M of resources diverted from other tasks and results in alleged "threat makers" being unnecessarily detained for a total of 1000 person hours. On this basis should we still do it? Is there any point at which the cost would be too high?

    Our decisions in these matters aren't always rational (we take comments about bombs on planes rather seriously in airports, even though it seems unlikely that a real bomber would make such comments) but they probably should be more rational than they are.

  4. Rob Grayson said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 6:31 am

    Interesting thoughts. For an example of a supposed threat being taken too seriously, see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/south_yorkshire/8673196.stm.

  5. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 7:20 am

    Possibly because we acclimatize ourselves to drastic and grotesque language from an early age. Whether in fairy tales, banter, dialectal profanities (Dublin: "I'll have your liver and lights!", Austria: "I'll shit into the middle of your brain!"; "If I'm wrong, you can stick the needle in here" (jabbing fingers into throat); "Are you crippled?" (expression of disbelief)), to add spice to an everyday story over a pint … even the language I and my wife use in dealing with our 3-month-old baby (go and get some water, she's just exploded again!).

    Presumably this kind of language has some benefits that counter the few instances where something meant literally is missed. But then, it's perfectly possible that the man used all the right signals to make people not interpret what he was saying literally – nudge nudge wink wink. Being able to deceive people (a favorite point of Karl Popper) is what makes our use of language so specifically human, and is closely related to our ability to make and use hypotheses, and imagine things that never were. And of course, (elliptical) insider language, which helps with group cohesion and cooperation (observable at any construction site), makes you more vulnerable to members of your own group abusing the special trust that the code mediates.

  6. Nick Lamb said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 7:28 am

    "nothing was done for three hours"

    I'm not sure which three hours you're talking about. One consequence of "rolling news" is that the story evolves, with statements that were asserted firmly by reporters one day replaced by contradictory statements the next, as they get different (hopefully more accurate) information.

    The newspaper I read yesterday (which I happen to have kept) informs me that Jackson was Bird's former boss, and has a paragraph about their supposed relationship, and Bird's dislike of him. The report linked here, in the Independent, says Jackson didn't know Bird at all prior to these events. So was he a tyrannical boss who fired Bird on suspicion of theft? Or just someone killed because he was in Bird's path? The police, no doubt, will be investigating, but the newspapers need something to fill their pages meanwhile.

    Likewise, I have read that police ordered people indoors, that they endeavoured to warn people by radio (but who listens to the radio these days?) and I have first hand reports of individuals who weren't able to drive down particular roads in the area because they were blocked by police hunting Bird. Then here I read that the police did "nothing" which seems to contradict all that.

    Years of reading accident investigation reports teaches me to prejudge nothing. The truth that emerges, a month, a year or a decade from now, will probably not very much resemble what was reported in newspapers yesterday.

    [I typed too fast and thought too slow; you're quite right, it isn't true that "nothing was done" in the three hours of the rampage, and I'm going to alter that in the comment above (in my response to James Moughan) because it's just a mistake. The police were of course working to catch him, and closing roads, etc. However, they were always a long way behind him (I'm not sure how soon they even knew who they were after), he was able to complete his murderous three-hour tour and commit suicide without the police ever getting near him. —GKP]

  7. Mark P said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 8:42 am

    The official position on suicide threats is to take them seriously because they are essentially "cries for help." I wonder what might have happened in this case if someone who heard the threats had simply engaged him and asked him what was wrong. Of course in a work situation that level of personal, emotional communication is not all that common, especially among men.

    On a slightly different note, I saw a report that quoted someone from the area as saying that it was hard to believe it had happened there, and that it sounded like something that would happen in the US.

  8. axl said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 9:07 am

    Words are important: Realtor is a protected trade name in the US, and as such refers to a member of the National Association of Realtors (though in extended use, any purveyor of real estate?). People who do the same kind of work over here tend to be called estate agents.

    [Agree. Since Language Log is hosted in the USA and has more of its readers there and uses American spelling, I translated British English estate agent to (the informal broader sense of) American English realtor. —GKP]

  9. J. Goard said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 9:22 am

    Sorry, GKP, but OMG we'd better attend to the warning signs of vocabulary choice!!! Ho, hum. In terms of public policy, this is TINY.

    Meanwhile in the UK this year, I'll bet about 250 people have died (and many more been seriously injured) because 500,000 people let friends "drink drive", with linguistic warning signs just a bit more stongly predictive of harm to others.

    If we're gonna do some language profiling, how about starting with slurred speech at the pub, instead of worrying about one phenomenon whose death toll is but a small fraction of the yearly standard deviation for the other?

  10. Judaica Store said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 9:30 am

    The official position on suicide threats is to take them seriously because they are essentially "cries for help." I wonder what might have happened in this case if someone who heard the threats had simply engaged him and asked him what was wrong. Of course in a work situation that level of personal, emotional communication is not all that common, especially among men.
    Totally agree

  11. stormboy said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 9:56 am

    @Mark P: "On a slightly different note, I saw a report that quoted someone from the area as saying that it was hard to believe it had happened there, and that it sounded like something that would happen in the US."

    I think this is probably not an uncommon view in the UK. This is the third mass shooting incident in three decades in the UK but we seem to hear about incidents of this nature in the US on a fairly regular basis.

  12. Steve F said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 10:46 am

    This case obviously raises many potentially disturbing issues, but there are plenty of forums elsewhere to discuss them, and this being Language Log I hope I will not sound callous if I raise a few more specifically linguistic issues.

    If I understand GKP correctly, his point is that the employment of the journalistic cliché ‘rampage’ should have rung alarm bells. Possibly, the fellow taxi drivers who heard him use the word were not as sensitive to its nuances as we followers of Language Log might be, but I agree that it is interesting that he should use the word, and that it suggests that somewhere in his disturbed mind he was aware of how other such mass-killings have been reported by the media, and that this might even have influenced him in the course of action he took (though of course we must be careful not to suggest any simple or direct link of the sort that is commonly proposed by – for example – those who believe that violent crime is caused by violent films or video games.)

    Then, as GKP has also mentioned, there is the almost universal use of the phrase ‘turned the gun on himself’, rather than any of the many alternatives, such as ‘committed suicide’, ‘shot himself’, and so on.

    But there is also the almost universal use of the word ‘spree’, which I gather is actually the technical term to describe this sort of crime. Otherwise ‘spree’ is surely a word of rather limited collocation, mostly restricted to the contexts of shopping and spending, though Google suggests it has a few other very specific and often commercial uses (Polyphonic Spree and Honda Spree, for example) and as a term used in online Social networking.

    And I notice that on Wikipedia there is already a discussion about whether this should be called the ‘Cumbria Massacre’, in common with the two previous mass-shootings Britain has experienced in Hungerford and Dunblane. At present it is called the ‘Cumbria shootings’ but one can foresee a rather grotesque argument about just how many people have to be killed to constitute a ‘massacre’.

  13. marie-lucie said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    "Spree" and "massacre":

    I would not call this serial shooting a "massacre", because that word suggests killing of a group, whether organized or not. The man did not shoot into a group of people waiting for a bus, for instance. Instead, he killed a number of individuals in different places, so "shooting spree" would seem a better choice.

  14. Dan T. said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    In another U.K. case, authorities are being criticized for overreacting by prosecuting somebody for sending on Twitter a non-serious "blowing off steam" threat to blow up an airport after his plane was delayed. People deciding whether to take steam-blowing language seriously or not are in a no-win situation.

  15. Fernando Colina said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    On a much more frivolous aspect, isn't it strange that "suicide" cannot be used as a verb in English? "To commit suicide" seems so awkward when "to suicide" is right there clamoring to be used.

  16. Alan said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    @Fernando Colina

    From what I've seen, the verb "to suicide" is used — with a touch of extremely dark humor — of governments and organizations that arrange the murder of an opponent to look like a suicide, as in, "He knew too much and was threatening to talk, so they suicided him."

  17. Boris said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

    I can't think of any words ending in "cide" that can be turned into verbs (and yes, I know about the transitive use "to suicide", but I think that isn't a stable expression), perhaps because enough people know that the suffix is used to describe a noun, a killer or killing of something.

  18. Steve F said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

    @ marie-lucie: I have to agree that the word 'massacre' does have connotations of group killing to me too, but the OED says merely 'unnecessary, indiscriminate killing', and the 1987 mass murders in Hungerford also took place in several different places, though not as far apart as in this case, and that seems to be generally known as the 'Hungerford massacre'. And one of the earliest uses of the word occurs in the title of Marlowe's play 'The Massacre at Paris' which depicts events that took place over several weeks, and throughout the whole of Paris, though group killings were certainly included.

    Similarly, the St Brice's Day massacre of the Danes in 1002 took place in many different cities in England, so I suspect that our shared feeling that it must refer to a group killing may be influenced by particular examples of group killing such as the Katyn massacre of 1940 or the My Lai massacre of 1968.

    As for 'spree', the word – despite being regularly used, and indeed, as I said, seeming to be the official technical term – has a slight oddness to me, probably because in other contexts it suggests something that is fun.

  19. Steve F said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

    I've just checked – I should have done beforehand of course – and discovered that the term 'Katyn massacre' does not only refer to the mass executions in Katyn Forest, but also to killings in various prisons and elsewhere.

  20. Mr Fnortner said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    Regarding suicide as a verb, or any -cide word as a verb, a check of my dictionary reveals about 45 words that end in -cide, from algicide to virucide, all of which involve the killing of something–with the interesting exception of decide. Should decide also mean the un-death of something, as in "He hit the reset button causing the decide of all his warriors"? If all the -cide words were to become verbs (a capital idea, btw) would the noun forms then have to end in -cision, e.g., suicision?

  21. Zubon said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

    I hear "suicide" used as an intransitive verb all the time, but maybe that is gamer-speak. If someone in-game blows himself up, his teammates might say, "he suicided." This can be used even for unintentional self-kills, particularly if it was due to gross clumsiness rather than poor luck. Falling deaths and accidental self-detonations on the way to combat are frequently called suicides; being your own collateral damage in a rocket fight, less often so. Exiting a situation or area via death (and re-spawn) is sometimes called "suiciding out."

  22. empty said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 4:17 pm

    My wife, a psychiatrist, uses 'suicide' as an intransitive verb.

  23. Terry Collmann said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

    To elaborate on stormboy's point, this is SO unusual in the UK that nobody, I think, could be blamed for not thinking that "there's going to be a rampage" was actually a prediction.

    On the other hand, I am sure a huge number of people, like me, predicted, as the first reports of what was happening in Cumbria came through, that the killer would eventually be found dead by his own hand.

  24. davep said,

    June 4, 2010 @ 6:46 pm

    "If they had contacted the police, what are the odds of it being taken seriously"

    Well, without being contacted, the probability of the police taking it seriously is exactly zero. And, if the police fail to take appropriate action after being informed, it's their fault not the informer's.

  25. maidhc said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 3:55 am

    I have second-hand knowledge of someone who went on a workplace killing spree, and he talked about things like that for months or years beforehand without doing anything. How to separate him from the other people who also talk like that, but never snap?

    I think it's hard to get any solid information from his vocabulary. Don't a lot of people repeat cliches from TV news? I know at least one sometime mental patient who does this all the time.

    There was a case here some years ago where a person at a photo developing lab reported to the police a number of pictures of someone posing with all kinds of weapons. When they investigated, they found elaborate plans for a massacre at a college campus where this person was a student. But when it went to trial, his lawyer said he was just creating a personal fantasy and had no intention of actually realizing it. He was convicted, though.

    Just yesterday someone went on a rampage in San Francisco targeting bicyclists with his SUV. I don't think any were killed, but there were serious injuries. Eventually he wrecked his SUV and took off. Then today he marched into a police station claiming to have been carjacked. The police didn't buy his story, though.

    But on the other side, there was the case a while ago of the police in Boston locking down the city because of what turned out to be a movie promotion.

    So bringing in a language question, "carjack" comes from "hijack", similar to the "-gate" suffix for a political scandal. American Heritage Dictionary says the origin of "hijack" is unknown.

    I'm also interested in the molecatcher. I've seen "molecatcher" (not "mole catcher", is this a modern usage?) in folksongs, but I didn't realize they were still around. What do they do with the moles once they are caught? Kill them, or release them in a more rustic environment?

    In the US, people who deal professionally with problem fauna generally don't restrict themselves to a single species. Is this different in the UK?

    Using folksong as my guide, I remember another song about the "Ratcatcher's Daughter". But people in the 19th c. used to collect rats to use in a sporting event with bull terriers to see which dog could kill the most rats in a little arena.

    Back to language, in Irish "spraoithiomáint" is the equivalent to American "joyriding", i.e., stealing a car for the fun of it, driving it around and abandoning it. In Hiberno-English, "spree" can mean an alcoholic "lost weekend", but in Irish, "spraoi" can just mean "fun". AHD has "spree" deriving from Irish. Maybe there is also a connection to "spry"?

    Sad about Cumbria, such a nice place to have such horrific events taking place.

  26. Victoria said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 11:48 am

    Anecdotal support for the theory that actions speak louder than words.

  27. Tom said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

    From the Home Office, via the BBC:

    "There were 39 fatal injuries from crimes involving firearms in 2008-09, the lowest recorded by the police in 20 years." Our total homicide rate is less than 800 a year.

  28. Joyce Melton said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

    It's often forgotten that spree-killing has a long history and is not so rare as people like to believe. The situation that makes modern instances noticeable is wide reportage of such events. Assume someone had done this crime in a remote corner of Britain in 1950. Would most Americans have heard of it sooner than a few weeks, if at all?

    A very Columbine-type killing took place in rural Arkansas before World War II, I know it happened only by chance even though I'm from Arkansas. I'm having trouble locating references to it on the net because the wide reportage of later such "sprees" swamp the search engines. Probably no one further away than Little Rock, Dallas or St. Louis heard about it within a year.

    There are more people now, with better communication; such stories are sometimes covered while they are happening. This makes a big impact on people's impression of their frequency.

  29. marie-lucie said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

    But with the modern media spreading the news, there are also more copy-cat killings. In the US there is also the proliferation of weapons of all kinds.

  30. Chris said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 5:27 am

    Rampage: a quick google shows a journalistic* use in "Drunken toffs from a posh college wrecked a country pub in a two-hour rampage".
    So "rampage" in the sense of getting drunk and vandalising a pub.

    * loosely speaking, The Sun newspaper (www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/article1996865.ece)

  31. nonpoptheorist said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 8:44 am

    I'm surprised the papers haven't been talking about Uwe Boll's film of the same name that appeared on the net about a week ago: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1337057/ The film is actually quite good, which is shocking from that particular director. I bet anyone googling 'rampage' now over any IRL incident such as in Cumbia is getting a few entries for his film. Right now I am seeing the IMDB link and a youtube trailer on the first page of results.

  32. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 11:24 am

    People don't say suicide as a verbe because we have perfectly good expression with the same number of syllables: top 'isself.

    And as the man said, prefer the saxon word to the latin.

  33. Christy said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

    In "The Gift of Fear" Gavin deBecker writes that in every investigation of workplace violence, he found that the employees had been joking in the days prior to the incident that "Bob" was going to break down and kill someone. In his consulting work, he teaches management teams that this is a danger sign and they need to pay attention to it.

  34. Ms Baroque said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    Hi there. This is an interesting reflection on the need to use words (in both directions) as if they actually mean something. However, I think there are cultural & geographical issues at play in some of your assumptions. First, while Derrick Bird had guns, there is nothing like the sort of 'gun culture' here that there is in the US. This kind of thing just doesn't happen the way it does there. The last equivalent event here was ten years ago; and the morning after this event the government was issuing a warning against "knee-jerk calls for changes to the gun laws." In other words, people would immediately respond here by wanting to tighten controls.

    It says something very nice about England, in fact, that it would never have occurred to people that he meant a murderous, gun-fuelled, bloody rampage. They may have assumed he meant he was going to have it out with his mum.

    Secondly, Cumbria is very rural. These are small towns and there aren't that many roads. I saw the story on the BBC website less than an hour after the first shooting. The police were doing everything they could, but in a place where there may be only two roads, bounded by high hedges, and which intersect ten miles out of town, you can see the importance of the helicopters the police were using…

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