Transitive "disappear"? Not in this country!

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The latest installment of Ruben Bolling's political cartoon "Tom the Dancing Bug" takes the form of a satirical information sheet, "So… You've Been Indefinitely Detained!" Among the "Frequently Asked Questions, Which You'll Have Plenty of Time to Contemplate," is this one:

Q. Have I been disappeared?
A. People aren't "disappeared" in America! Only in lawless dictatorships can intransitive verbs be used to make passive forms.

The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.) records transitive disappear from 1897:

3. trans. To cause to disappear.

1897    Chem. News 19 Mar. 143   We progressively disappear the faces of the dodecahedron.
1949    Amer. Speech 24 41   The magician may speak of disappearing or vanishing a card.

But the relevant use appears in draft additions to the entry, added in December 2002:

a. intr. Of a person: to go missing in suspicious circumstances; spec. (euphem.) to undergo abduction or arrest, esp. for political reasons, and subsequently to be detained or killed, without one's fate being made known.

1941    W. Williams Riddle of Reich iv. 36   There have been arrests recently and there are rumors that some people have disappeared, people who told about the destruction which the British have inflicted on northwestern and western Germany.
1969    C. Belfrage tr. E. Galeano Guatemala 68   There are never any witnesses of a killing.‥ The families of many who disappear prefer not to take the matter to the authorities.
1977    Washington Post (Nexis) 10 Mar. a2   Yesterday's petition, which had more than 2,000 signatures, asked the court to‥work to clear up the fate of 501 persons listed as having disappeared in the past 3½ years after being arrested by security police.
1985    London Mag. Oct. 22   The other journalist, a friend of mine, ‘disappeared’ at the end of 1976 and is presumed murdered by the military who seized government in March that year.
1999    S. L. Kasfir Contemp. Afr. Art v. 151   As more and more Ugandans including the University's own vice chancellor ‘disappeared’ into Makindye or Luzira prison never to be seen again.

b. trans. euphem. To abduct or arrest (a person), esp. for political reasons, and subsequently to kill or detain as a prisoner, without making his or her fate known. Freq. with reference to Latin America. [Originally and chiefly after American Spanish desaparecido desaparecido n.]

1979    N.Y. Times Mag. 21 Oct. 66   While Miss Iglesias ‘was disappeared’, her family's writ of habeus corpus, filed on her behalf, was rejected by the courts.
1987    E. Leonard Bandits iii. 37   Our two Nicaraguan doctors were disappeared, one right after the other.
1990    Times 8 Aug. 17/1   Armed men arrive in a village and ‘disappear’ any activists, several of whom have later been found floating in nearby rivers.
1999    Guardian 28 Sept. i. 2   By refusing to tell the families of the 1,198 people who were forcibly disappeared by the Chilean security forces what had happened to their loved ones they were subjecting them to ‘mental pain, suffering and demoralization’.

For more on similar verbs in Mandarin, see Victor Mair's post, "Suicided: the adversative passive as a form of active resistance" (with discussion in the comments about disappear).

(Hat tip, Ed Cormany.)


  1. djw said,

    December 22, 2011 @ 11:48 am

    I wonder whether presentation software will contribute to more use of the transitive meaning with designers "appearing" and "disappearing"objects and text on slides. The transition to "disappearing" physical objects (including people)–with a sense as simple as "moving them out of the way"–seems quite logical to me.

  2. Brett Reynolds said,

    December 22, 2011 @ 11:58 am

    You can count on those cartoonists to know their passives.

  3. jfruh said,

    December 22, 2011 @ 12:09 pm

    Is the use of desaparecido in this context in Spanish similarly a neologism? Is it just a straightforward cognate for "disappeared" or is it something like "disappearicide"?

  4. Rod Johnson said,

    December 22, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

    I associate this very strongly with Catch-22.

  5. languagehat said,

    December 22, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

    Relevant Catch-22 quote:

    "What does Major Major say?"

    "We never see Major Major. He seems to have disappeared."

    "I wish we could disappear him!" Colonel Cathcart blurted out from the corner peevishly. "The way they did that fellow Dunbar."

    (The OED appears to have missed this.)

  6. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 22, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

    In standard Spanish, transitive desaparecer is (just like the English transitive disappear) used only when speaking of magicians and the like.

    The transitive desaparecer used (along with the standard hacer desaparecer) when speaking of the actions of South American dictatorships seems to be a back-formation from the past participle desaparecido. In Spanish, however, it's quite normal to use p.p.s formed from intransitive verbs to describe subjects who have performed the given action, e.g. un asteroide venido (= que vino) de otra galaxia, una mujer aparecida (= que apareció) muerta.

    In English this seems to work only when the p.p. is modified by an adverb, e.g. lately come, recently arrived, newly sprung. At least those are the only cases I can think of.

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 22, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

    I am for some reason particularly taken by the OED notation "trans. euphem." It's is if euphemisms were subdivided into the transitive and intransitive kinds, with this being one of the former.

  8. mollymooly said,

    December 22, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

    Hmm, "euphemism" seems not quite accurate. Is there a word for "putative euphemism only ever used ironically"?

  9. Dominik Lukeš said,

    December 22, 2011 @ 4:25 pm

    There's a similar case in Czech with the transitivization of „leave“ (odejít) that I always use as an example of constructional blending. You can blend the passive construction (with all its semantic and grammatical meanings) with an intransitive blend to insinuate the idea of an agent that isn't there. The Czech form is „byl odejit“ (he was left – unlike Eng, Czech does not have the transitive option for leave something or someone). However, this seems to be entirely opportunistic (both the form and the usage) and there's no reason to presuppose any etymology or cross-linguistic borrowing for it. A single Google query revealed multiple uses for “byl zmizen” (he was disappeared) including one “zmizel/byl zmizen” (disappeared/was disappeared). This is obviously a sort of hypostasis that relies on the accident of form/meaning collision. The other English staple of this “to be volunteered” is not possible in Czech because there is no easy verb for “to volunteer”. Of course, with the frequency of usage in “to volunteer someone”, the ad hoc usage turns into a constructional schema. In fact, I remember once trying to employ it on “to sign up” to indicate that I was signed up involuntarily only to be thwarted by the fact that sign up has a bone fide transitive usage. But in my head, the blend took place perfectly.

  10. Eric P Smith said,

    December 22, 2011 @ 8:22 pm

    @Coby Lubliner: The intransitive past participle in English is much commoner than you suppose, and does not always need an adverb. Fowler’s Modern English Usage gives the following examples without adverbs: fallen angels, the risen sun, a vanished hand, past times, a grown girl, a gone coon, absconded debtors, escaped prisoners, the deceased lady, the dear departed, coalesced stems, a collapsed lorry, we are agreed, a couched lion, an eloped pair, an expired lease. Fowler adds that some cases are ambiguous, and with typical wit remarks that “an angel dropped from heaven has possibly been passive, but more likely active, in the descent.”

  11. kkm said,

    December 22, 2011 @ 10:19 pm

    In other words, the verb “disappear” has been passived since 1979…

  12. G Bell said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 12:55 am

    Re: "lately come", "recently arrived", "newly sprung":

    The use of the past participle of these verbs to modify the grammatical subject appears to be linked to an archaic usage of "to be" to form the perfect of (intransitive) verbs of motion in English. This is visible in set phrases and lexicalized participles: "The Lord is come", "they are gone", "fallen leaves", and in poetry "like a wanderer white / With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder" and so forth. An expert would know the history.

    In German the copula "sein" is used with verbs of motion, and the corresponding past participle modifies the grammatical subject. This is entirely productive: "nach Hause gekommene Kinder", "der gefallene Vorhang", "eingeschlichene Fehler", and so forth.

    Indeed, the same rule applies to intransitive verbs that express a change of state, so that in German "verschwundene Personen" ("disappeared persons") is not a neologism but a completely ordinary phrase.

  13. languageandhumor said,

    December 23, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

    @jfruh No, there's no "-cide" of "suicide," etc. in "desaparecido."

    Spanish verbs ending in -er have past participles ending in -ido ("desaparecER," "desaparecIDO"). "Suicide" in Spanish is "suicidio" for the act and "el suicida" (boy/man) or "la suicida" (girl/woman) for the actor/result.

  14. max said,

    December 27, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

    Transitiving intransitive verbs in America: "Look me in the eye"?

    [(myl) I'm not at all sure that me is a direct object in that construction. Note that attempts to produce a passive version are marginal at best: "*He was looked in the eye by a possum". Some corpus evidence:

    [look] me|him|her|us|them in the eye

    has 686 hits in COCA, while

    was|is|were|be looked in the eye

    has none at all. There's no general problem with passives in cases of a direct object followed by a similar prepositional phrase — "He was hit in the eye by a errant golf ball".]

  15. max said,

    December 30, 2011 @ 12:40 am

    myl, point taken. After some further thought, I Googled "look at me in the eye" and was surprised to find 8 million hits; that's an expression that sounds wrong to my ear and I had assumed it was nonstandard. From the volume of hits, evidently it's me who's nonstandard.

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