Contemporary Anglo-American news media and politicians persist in calling the heinous murder of innocents a ‘tragedy’ rather than an ‘atrocity’, thereby blunting the force of the act by scanting the role of human agency. This is not just a linguistic failure but a noxious failure of thought, and therefore a moral failure with important social and public policy consequences.

The word ‘atrocity’ is defined as ‘savage enormity, horrible or heinous wickedness’. That is the proper description applying to the recent killings in Connecticut.

By contrast, the word ‘tragedy’ is defined in the first instance as ‘a play or other literary work of a serious or sorrowful character, with a fatal or disastrous conclusion’. Its extension, as to consequences, beyond playwrighting and the theater as a substitute for the proper term ‘atrocity’ should everywhere be resisted. Beside the debasement of the purport of mass murder, the effect of constantly using the transferred meaning of a word from theatrical nomenclature necessarily abuts in a tendency to equalize horrific crimes committed by human beings against their fellow humans with excogitated or imaginary acts; and, more significantly, with impersonal events such as natural cataclysms that are unavoidable. Nothing could be further from the truth, nor more inimical to the forma mentis betokened linguistically when the prevention of further such crimes is the overriding social goal.

Words matter.