Euthanasia 'em all, and let God sort whom out

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They say that any noun can be verbed, but some transformations are more surprising than others. Here's one that Bryan Van de Ven spotted earlier today on the road in Austin. (Click on the image for a larger and more complete picture.)

The sub-head ("HANG THE PERSON WHOM HIRES THEM) attests fact that whom is treated on the right just as it is on the left: All across the political spectrum, slogan-daubers use whom when "a note of dignity and austerity is desired".


  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

    This guy gets around.

    [(myl) Apparently no blue van in the Austin area is safe.]

  2. tudza said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 6:32 pm

    This person seems unaware that there is a perfectly normal verb form of that noun already.

  3. James Davis said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

    That pic is disturbing.

  4. James said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 7:10 pm

    Interesting that the message in the other picture (which I assume is the other side of the same van) is identical, letter-for-letter. This wasn't just hastily-scrawled vitriol; he put some thought into saying exactly what he wanted to say.

  5. George said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

    I bet this person supports English-only education as well.

  6. Molly said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

    Could the usage of "whom" here be an interference with the use in Spanish of "quien", which is used both after a preposition, the way "whom" is used in English ("the person to whom…") but also as the subject of a relative clause where English requires "the person who/whoever" ("Quien duerme mucho pierde mucho")? I agree that this picture is disturbing.

  7. Kylopod said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

    I think y'all are misunderstanding the message. The person whom wrote it is raging against an illegal alien named Euthanasia.

  8. Nijma said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 9:37 pm

    Also, singular "them".

  9. dirk alan said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

    i refudiate this.

  10. MJ said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

    @kylopod Too funny. Almost spit out my drink.

  11. Gordon said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 10:39 pm

    That use of 'whom' is a real bum note. Ouch.

    George Orwell would love this guy – a classic case of covering for shoddy thinking and offensive sentiment with pretentious language. How's it 'euthanasia'!? Ha ha.

  12. Janice Byer said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 10:53 pm

    Both the sentiment and the English seem too bad to be true, but I gather the sincerity is not in doubt. The lack of spelling errors is wholly impressive and not suspicious, right?

  13. Kip said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 12:34 am

    My guess: this vehicle is owned by an illegal alien. He figures the best way to avoid being caught is to make sure no one would possibly suspect him of being here illegally.

  14. Romy said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 1:25 am

    have you written about 'shall' somewhere. The usage that brings out the worst sort of grammar bearishness in me is the use of shall in a sentence like : the speech shall be presented at 7pm; the men shall drink beer tomorrow

  15. KWillets said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 3:21 am

    If it weren't for the US Army, we'd all be speaking English right now.

  16. Picky said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 8:37 am

    Well, I think the whom is just the common error of transferring the case of the noun to the pronoun which refers back to it.

  17. Sili said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 8:52 am

    We have always been at war with Euthanasia.

  18. Dan T. said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 9:04 am

    The youth in Asia may seem alien to us, but what's illegal about them?

  19. David said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    Someone on another site suggested that Euthanasia the Illegal Alien might be a cousin of Dora the Explorer.

  20. Janice Byer said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

    Dan T, good one, hee. "Youth in Asia: The Illegal Alien" sounds like an action-adventure B movie.

  21. Thomas Westgard said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    Oh, God, David, I can't wait for the pilot episode of Euthanasia the Illegal Alien. Please tell me it's on YouTube somewhere.

  22. Mary Bull said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

    Is it possible that y'all are gonna get rid of this kind of hate speech by making fun of it? I'm laughing my head off at all the wonderful humor, but I've still got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

    I hear this kind of Mexican-immigrant bashing all the time here in Tennessee. Puts me into despair over the state of grass-roots democracy in the U.S.

    (Native Texan, Tennessee resident)

  23. Gordon said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    @Janice Byer: Were you saying to me that the 'covering for offensive sentiment' would necessarily imply insincerity? I don't think so – just some inner murmur of self-doubt, perhaps aggressively suppressed with excess vociferousness. You know how defensive the loopiest cranks can get – they're not generally noted for their equinamity.

  24. nakrian said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 5:46 am

    Well, I think the whom is just the common error of transferring the case of the noun to the pronoun which refers back to it.

    I think Picky's explanation is on the money here. After all, the question form would be 'Hang whom?' and the response could be 'hang him/her!'

    Actually, I think this construction shows a level of grammatical awareness, even if it is non-standard English. The 'note of dignity/austerity' theory does not seem as plausible to me in this particular case, although I think that it probably does account for most of the cases where 'whom' is used in a non-standard way. (I am such a non-prescriptivist I cannot bring myself to use a word like incorrect :)

    The use of 'them' referred to by nijma, I take to be used as a singular 3rd person pronoun instead of 'him or her'. That's pretty common isn't it?

  25. Nijma said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

    The use of 'them' referred to by nijma, I take to be used as a singular 3rd person pronoun instead of 'him or her'.

    That's how I read it, the first time, at least. But when a "note of austerity and dignity" is desired, I would think the sort of people who come up with those type of slogans would also prefer masculine words like "he", "man", and "mankind". The, what do you call, register, is not quite right, like wearing sneakers with a suit.

    But maybe the Sarah Palin thing is changing the language on that side of the political spectrum.

  26. Kylopod said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    One example I remember of a strangely placed whom is the line from the Clash song "Should I Stay Or Should I Go," when he says "exactly whom I'm supposed to be."

    What I always found interesting about that line is that it may be the only time I've ever heard the word "whom" in a rock or pop song, yet it's used incorrectly. You just don't expect British punks to engage in hypercorrection.

  27. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

    I always thought that was "exactly who'm [who am] I supposed to be."

    "Whom" does appear in another Clash song, "Something about England," but used correctly:

    Well I saw a dirty overcoat
    At the foot of the pillar of the road
    Propped inside was an old man
    Whom time would not erode…

  28. groki said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    Kylopod: "exactly whom I'm supposed to be."

    not sure I'd call it hypercorrection: I think it's a version of the copula being given objective case. (by the way, apologies to any whom my examples peeve. :)

    "It's I" vs "It's me"; "I'm he" vs "I'm him"; "I'm supposed to be he" vs "I'm supposed to be him."

    then that last gets wh– transformed to "whom I'm supposed to be."

  29. Paul Zukowski said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 1:46 pm

    Ask not for whom the van tolls …

  30. Nathan Myers said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

    Ben has it right: the Clash are singing "who'm". Which makes me wonder, for the first time, about the origin of standard "whom", and releated words like "them". Do we have fossilized contractions established in grammatical roles, in the way that they have become well established in place and family names ("Wooster")?

  31. Kylopod said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

    @Ben & Nathan

    There's one small snag in your theory. He very clearly says "I'm," not "I." Therefore, if the preceding word is who'm, the line would come out to be saying "exactly who am I'm supposed to be," which makes considerably less sense than the other readings.


    You're assuming that people naturally pair whom with other objective-case pronouns. That's what we're supposed to do according to the traditional rules, but I'm not convinced it's what most people are in the habit of doing. My theory is that people tend to turn who into whom whenever the next word is a personal pronoun, because that frequently is the signal of when it should be used. That's why you'll hear people write things like "the person whom I think is ready." If you took away the I think, few people would write the person whom is ready, but the added phrase throws them off. And that's what I suspect is happening in the Clash song. I doubt the songwriter thought deeply about the matter. My theory cannot account for the van message, and I suspect Mark Liberman is correct that the word sometimes connotes "a note of dignity and austerity."

  32. Gordon said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    Could it not be that the Clash songwriter was thinking that the model 'whom' is an object alienated from the singer-subject?

  33. groki said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

    Kylopod: My theory is that people tend to turn who into whom whenever the next word is a personal pronoun, because that frequently is the signal of when it should be used.

    I have to admit, your theory does give a succinct pragmatic rationale. and although I am one of those who think (too!) "deeply about the matter," it may even account for my own whom use a lot of the time; I'll keep my ears peeled.

    Gordon: 'whom' is an object alienated

    that sounds like punk!

  34. Kylopod said,

    August 24, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    Well, if there's a grammatical whom and a dignified whom, I suppose there should also be a punk whom. Just kidding.

    Summing it up, I'd estimate that people use whom most often in the following constructions:

    (1) Before a subjective-case personal pronoun (he, she, it, they).

    (2) After a preposition (e.g. to whom it my concern).

    (3) When "a note of dignity and austerity is desired."

    On the other hand, people typically do not use whom in questions like "Whom do you trust?" or "Whom are you taking to the airport?" even though the traditional rules require it.

    I wonder if these usages will ever become the standard, and the current schoolroom rules will be forgotten. Most linguists assume that whom is an archaism that has been artificially kept alive, and if so, it may finally disappear except maybe as a fossil in expressions like to whom it may concern.

    (Speaking of which, to whom it may concern is a pretty strange expression. What is the preposition "to" doing there? It's not like we ever say "concern to" anywhere else in the language. I wonder where the expression came from and when it entered the language. Today, people rarely use it with a straight face, assuming they ever did.)

    [(myl) The to in "to whom it may concern" is the to of "to all Americans". And the use of concern is the one in "this doesn't concern you". So the expression means "this message is addressed to anyone that it may affect or involve".]

  35. Josh said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 6:34 am

    Kylo, There's Springsteen using it correctly: "just some other ghost out on the street to whom you stop and politely speak."

  36. Astonishing verbings « Arnold Zwicky's Blog said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 11:26 am

    […] on August 21, Mark Liberman reported on a remarkable verbing — of the noun euthanasia, in a sign painted on a van: EUTHANASIA THE […]

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