- n. An act of deliberate killing of another human being.
Murder is a word which is familiar to just about every English speaker in the world; it gets used every day in newspapers and television, especially given the glut of crime shows on the air recently. Every Law & Order or CSI uses it, though mostly in the criminological sense of an intentional killing (“malice aforethought” is, I believe, the part official definition for murder in the first degree).
Murder is an old word, and even though our modern “murder” technically comes from the Latinate murdrum, the word has a long history in Germanic languages as well. Our first recorded use of the Germanic form is in Beowulf, the famous Anglo-Saxon epic, as morðor. It’s important to note that the Old English use of the word didn’t refer to killing in general, but to killing which is unlawful or wicked. These were more barbarous times, remember, so there were a number of socially-acceptable situations where killing somebody else was just fine (and therefore not morðor)). David Crystal notes an additional facet, which is that murder was carried out in secret; public killing, even if unlawful, was not a crime so much as a personal slight which could be remedied by further killing or by payment.
Thus is the Proto-Indo-European *mrtro- (“killing”, from *mr-, “to die”) comes to give us both branches, as well as eventually giving is mortal[ity] as well. And in both branches, the notion of clandestine killing was there. Those readers with an interest in fantasy literature may have also noticed the close resemblance of morðor to the legendary and evil land of Mordor in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though the ð in the former is not a d, but rather an eth, pronounced like the “th” in “them”, the similarity is indisputable…. especially when we remember that Tolkein was learned of Old English and Beowulf in particular. An occult, secretive land associated with death is right on target with what we know from the books.
We have Old English myrþrian (“to murder”), the Gothic maurþr, the Old Norse morð, and Frankish *murþra. This last item lead to the Old French murdre, the Latin murdrum, and the Anglo-Norman murdre. Middle English’s murder, murdre, mourdre1 comes from an alteration of an early form, murther, which appears to have come from the Old English form. It may have been influenced by the th→d switch of the French/Latinate route, though Middle English sometimes performed this change without any help from the French.
On the aforementioned crime shows, you’re likely to hear the word “homicide”, which combines homo- (Latin for “man”) with the suffix -cide, which is a construction of Old French inherited from the Latin suffix -cidium, which meant, roughly, “the act of killing”. The suffix ultimately comes from PIE (*kae-id-) and has to do with “striking”.
“Homicide” as we know it is a straight orthographic import from Old French, in which it appeared as early as the 13th century.
We have plenty of other constructions that use the form, either directly from Latin or backformed to match the pattern:
- “Suicide” is from the 17th century, from the Latin suicidiumsui- (“of oneself”) + -cide.
- “Fratricide” is mid-15th-century, from frater-(brother)
- “Uxoricide” was probably formed by analogy, since it wasn’t recorded until the mid-19th century. uxor is Latin for “wife”.
- “Genocide” was definitely formed by analogy, mostly likely by Raphael Lemkin in 1944. It comes from the Greek root genos (“race” or “kind”), where whence genus as a taxonomic classification.
It would be impossible for any self-respecting etymologist to talk about the word murder without referencing the King James translation of the fifth commandment—Thou Shalt Not Murder.
The actual Hebrew word used is r’tsach, and is variously translated as “kill” and “murder”, though these are two very different ideas, at least in antiquity.
As Joel Hoffman notes in And God Said, the book of Numbers provides much more in the way of context. Killing was legal, in a sense, except that in the Hebrew tradition of “blood redemption” (blood redeemer is go’el hadam), one’s male family member(s) would be morally obligated to hunt down the killer and kill him in turn, much like in later Anglo-Saxon societies.
According to Hoffman, there are four “kill” words that need considering. Cain haraged Abel, Moses hikahed the Egyptian taskmaster, and Abraham asks Yahweh not to heimit any righteous people in Sodom. Finally, ratasch, a form of the earlier r’tsach, is used both in the Ten Commandments as well as in the codification of honor killing described in Numbers. The wordhikah seems to mean “strike”, either fatally or not, though the KJV tends to imply the latter because it frequently translated it as “smite” or “smote”2. Heimit seems clearly to indicate a general causing of death, without specification as to mean or result, and is used interchangeably with harag during the story of Joseph (Genesis 37:18-20).
To ratsach, as Numbers tells us, sometimes happens if you hikah someone and he dies. You can also ratsach someone accidentally, implying that to ratsach someone is to kill them, possibly by accident. The blood redeemer, however must heimit the ratsacher. It any case, the term used means “illegal killing” (though one might think that Cain’s haraging of Abel would count, too), or “murder” or “manslaughter”, since other forms of killing (such as when a blood redeemer heimited somebody) we considered, well, kosher.
- It’s a good thing there were no spelling bees in Chaucer’s time.[↩]
- Note: this really isn’t the fault of the KJV. In fact, “smite” has always simply meant “hit”, but because our modern understanding of the word is influenced almost entirely by its use in KJV, and in connection with godly force, we’ve naturally given the word a fatal connotation.[↩]