As an American who’s been alive since JFK was fooling around in the White House, I have had the unseemly privilege of reading about murder in newspapers and magazines for almost five decades. And maybe you’ve noticed this, too, but 99.98 percent of the time, when a human life is ended by violence, the reporter uses the phrase “brutally murdered.” (A Google search turns up over 2.4 million results.) I’ve been tracking this linguistic tic for far longer than is healthy. And, frankly, I’m sick of it.
First, I ask you: Can one be gently murdered? Well, it ain’t easy. Almost by definition, murder is a brutal business. Unless you’ve been poisoned or tickled to death, you’re probably suffering great physical damage in the process of having your heart forcibly stopped from beating. So, yeah, maybe the “brutal” modifier is redundant.
Second, okay… let us allow that “murder” requires a modifier, because it spices up the reading experience. I get it. Keeping eyeballs glued to your copy always has been difficult—now more than ever in this time of social media overload, pivoting to video, and complaining about 280 characters on Twitter. Maybe simply writing “Joseph Saddsaque was murdered by an impecunious man who desired to relieve him of his wallet” won’t suffice in this cutthroat media environment of dwindling attention spans. So, modify away! But why why WHY does it almost ALWAYS have to be “brutally”? What’s wrong with “savagely”? Why not try “viciously” on for sighs? How about, for old time's sake, “barbarically”? You know, just to switch it up for a minute. Editors! Are you picking up what I'm laying down?
Can we finally kill the knee-jerk deployment of “brutally murdered” from the journalistic lexicon? No? I didn’t think so. Bad habits die hard.