Can you evacuate a person?

In a long-ago episode of "The Wire," a reporter had written in an article that people were “evacuated” from a burning building. Wrong, her editors tell her. You don’t “evacuate” a person from a building. To evacuate a person, she's told, means “to give them an enema.”

The reporter picks up a copy of Webster’s New World College Dictionary — the Associated Press Stylebook’s designated dictionary and therefore the very one that newsroom would use — and affirming that, yes, the editors were right. “Evacuate” cannot be used to describe removing people from a building.

I wasn’t buying it. The fact that the show knew which dictionary to use had impressed me so much that I almost believed they were telling viewers the truth about its contents. But not quite.

So I picked up my own copy of Webster’s New World.

The first two definitions show that to “evacuate” a person can indeed mean to give him an enema. They are: 1. to make empty; remove the contents of; specif., to remove air from so as to make a vacuum; and 2. to discharge (bodily waste, esp. feces).

But the third definition was different:

3. to remove (inhabitants, etc.) from (a place or area), as for protective purposes

That means that you can evacuate a person by removing him or her from a place. And it contains another lesson, too. Never get your facts from people whose primary job is to entertain.

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