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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

Permission to evacuate

The Baltimore Sun

As Hurricane Florence barrels toward the Atlantic coast of the United States, you may see cautions to avoid saying that people are being evacuated. The belief—it is utterly mistaken—is that only objects, such as buildings and cities, can be evacuated.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says that the argument against saying that people can be evacuated “was based on etymology—evacuate is derived from the Latin evacuare, “to make empty.” To speak of evacuating people, in the view of the critics, was to speak of making them empty. …”

I have a private suspicion that some editors object to the word from a prissy squeamishness about the “discharge (bodily waste, esp. feces)” sense.

But the "evacuating people" usage, which became common during and after the First World War, was so useful and popular by the time of the Second World War that, MWDEU says, “any criticism of it had the hollow ring of pure pedantry, and the controversy quickly died out. The respectability of this usage is no longer subject to question.”

The American Heritage Dictionary (“To withdraw or send away (troops or inhabitants) from a threatened area”), Merriam-Webster (“ to remove especially from a military zone or dangerous area”), Webster’s New World College Dictionary (“to remove (inhabitants, etc.) from (a place or area) as for protective purposes”), and the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (“remove from a place of danger to a safer place”) all list the usage as standard.

You will not find any objection to it in Bernstein, Garner, any of the four Fowler’s, or even the AP Stylebook.

So pray do not waste your time over a distinction that was essentially extinct (apart from newspapers) by the time Harry Truman declared V-J Day. Just get the hell out.

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