Gum-chewing drives some people to distraction, while split infinitives irritate others. One idiosyncratic bee in my own bonnet is the meaning of casualties.
I’ve even taken a stand on the issue. Some years ago, I wrote a letter to National Public Radio correcting an exaggerated number of dead from some Civil War battle. The person had quoted a figure in the hundreds of thousands, assuming that casualties meant “deaths.” Casualties include the dead, wounded, and missing. It’s true that many in the latter two categories would eventually join the fatalities, but not all of them. I was invited to read my letter aloud on a feedback segment of All Things Considered.
A recent example. I loved Yiyun Li’s story Wednesday’s Child in the January 23 New Yorker. In an author interview on the New Yorker website, she says that over a million young people died in the World War I battle(s) around Ypres, France, a comment that set off my casualties alarm. Turns out it’s very difficult to ascertain online how many people died at Ypres, because four or five battles took place there. As far as I can tell, the appalling number of casualties is in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps even a million or more, but the number of actual deaths, while also appalling, would be far fewer.
Upwards of nine million military personnel died in World War I in total, while casualties may have numbered over twenty million.
As you might imagine, the Latin root of casualties helps clarify this distinction. The verb cadere means “to fall”; its participle casus would mean “having fallen.” Not to be flippant, but someone can fall without dying. Casuality differs from fatality.
Cadere also gave us cadence, cadaver, casual, incident, accident and many more.
I still like Yiyun Li and her story, so much that I am reading her recent novel The Book of Goose.
Share your own pet peeves below. The weirder the better.