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.

12 Responses to “Can You Evacuate a Person?”

  1. My brother recommended I might like this web site. He was entirely right. This post actually made my day. You can not imagine simply how much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!

  2. I still don't think you can evacuate a person. I think you can evacuate a building or a city.

  3. If "evacuate" also means "to remove (inhabitants, etc.) from (a place or area), as for protective purposes" as in three above, then to evacuate a person would means to remove (inhabitants, etc.) from that person. Unless the person contains inhabitants, as perhaps a pregnant woman does, then it is odd to say "evacuate a person".

  4. Yeah, third definition still doesn't apply for what the reporter said in the wire. "120 people were evacuated." If she said they were evacuated from the building it would have made sense, but since she didn't... it doesn't. Nice try though, prolly soulda looked more into it. Never get your facts from whose primary job is to complain.

  5. The building was evacuated, not the people in it.

  6. The third definition is illuminatingly clear 120 people were evacuated. = 120 people(inhabitants) were removed from an area. This may be misleading because it refers to an event not mentioned (though still a gramatically correct sentence) Never get your facts from whose primary job is to correct "complaints"

  7. Just finish watching that episode of the Wire. I had the same question which lead me here.

  8. Even though the author of the article might be right, The Wire is still the best series ever!!!

  9. The third definition makes the editor in the wire even more right. Evacuating a building is "to remove (inhabitants, etc.) from (a place or area)", whereas evacuating a person wouldn't make sense with this definition.

  10. I think the key word here is "from".

    I believe - from memory - during the scene, the editor actually read out loud "the Fire Department evacuated 120 people". This is grammatically wrong.

    But if it was "the Fire Department evacuated 120 people from the building" as you have been writing in your article - then I think this should be allowed.

  11. Both the shows editor and just about everyone on the message board is missing a critical point about language and grammar; they d not abide by 'rules' they follow conventions. There is no strictly correct or incorrect usage. The only way you could say a usage is more or less degraded is if it fails to communicate the intended information or sentiment. So when she says "the fire department evacuated 120 people" if there are some people scratching their heads and asking 'why did the fire department give 120 people enemas?' then the grammar is inadequate....but nobody did that, hence the fact the joke was still funny on the show.

  12. Hello

    I'm not native English speaker. Though, I've been challenged by this question, while watching the Wire as well, especially cause we (in French) have the exact same verb (evacuer), and I was pretty sure this one could be used with the structure "to evacuate people". I checked, and my French dictionnary effectively confirmed my initial thought.

    It seems, after reading you, that the same goes for English. For the ones who argued that there has to be an adverbial phrase of place like "from the building", I would like to had this example taken from the Merriam-Webster online (therefore similar source as the one presented in The Wire):
    "People who live along the coast are being evacuated as the hurricane approaches."

    Here the place is precised as a relative clause and not as an adverbial phrase of place. And this relative clause can grammaticaly be removed to give "people are being evacuated as the hurricane approaches". So "to evacuate people" seems legit also in English.

    This said, maybe it "sounds" weird for an English speaker to evacuate people, and that's why some you might remain reluctant (if some people can answer me on this, cause in French it sounds perfectly legit) (sorry for any grammar mistakes, or poor english, as I said I'm not native speaker but our languages have similarities, at least on this word, so I thought an external point of view would be interesting).