Can You Evacuate a Person?
Not long ago, I started watching “The Wire” on DVD. I recommend it. It’s the former HBO series about cops and drug dealers in Baltimore. The final season of the show, which ended in 2008, partly took place in a fictionalized version of the Baltimore Sun newsroom, bringing us into the lives of fictional reporters and editors. This final season also contains a moment of interest to language lovers and wordsmiths.
In the first episode of the season, one of the reporters 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, her editors tell her, means “to give them an enema.”
It was an amusing moment in the show made more interesting by the fact that the show’s creator, David Simon, is a former Sun editor. It gets even more interesting when the reporter picks up a copy of “Webster’s New World” 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.
The tone of the newsroom banter rang true. Professional wordsmiths spend a lot of time talking about such usage matters. But the content of the conversation -- the stuff aobut “evacuate” --well, I just 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.