5 Times Words Actually Killed
People like to pretend that the pen is mightier than the sword, but that’s mostly something nerds say right before they get packed into a school trashcan like a musket ball. In reality, if you have a sword, you’re generally in control of most situations — both from the physical threat it imposes and the unhinged energy being a sword guy projects. Good luck negotiating with the kind of guy who’s bringing a katana into the Chipotle, no matter what your IQ is.
That doesn’t mean that words don’t have real power though — whether it’s just emotional damage or something that snowballs into a genuinely dangerous situation. For example, just think about all the workplace accidents that occurred as a direct result of someone shouting, “You’re clear!” Throw in the human mind’s aptitude at confusion and you realize that, much like sticks and stones, words can indeed hurt you.
Here are five times that words not just hurt, but ended a life…
A Deadly Joke
It’s not common, but excessive laughter can actually kill someone — despite supposedly being the purest auditory expression of joy. So maybe, instead of criticizing him, we should consider that Jimmy Fallon is just trying to keep everyone safe. One of the most famous documented deaths from laughing goes all the way back to Athens, with a philosopher known as Chrysippus of Soli.
More interestingly, apparently the joke that ended Chrysippus’ life was his own, saving the Greeks from what would have been a highly confusing murder trial. Apparently, Chrysippus, during the Olympiad, saw a donkey eating figs and hit the ass with the stellar retort, “Now give him some pure wine to wash down those figs!” Maybe he was more of a performer than a writer? Regardless, he sent himself into such a disastrous laughing fit that he collapsed and started foaming at the mouth, later dying. There’s also a suggestion that Chrysippus was absolutely zooted off undiluted wine, which makes the whole thing seem a little more likely.
Thinking An Injured Man Was Gay
Language is complicated, despite what that bastard Duolingo owl would like you to think. Even a difference of a couple measly letters, run through one language to another, can completely muddle a very important sentence’s meaning. This is exactly what happened to a Norwegian man in Denmark in 2009. The man was a hemophiliac, so when he was hit in the head with a drinking glass, he sought medical treatment, knowing his blood was constantly trying to kill him over any small injury.
He headed to the hospital and attempted to communicate in Norwegian that he was a hemofil, or hemophiliac. Unfortunately, the Danish doctor, with their ever-so-slightly different language, thought the man was simply coming out of the closet as a homofil, or homosexual. The doctor gave him what he must have thought was a very encouraging talk about how there was nothing wrong with that, and he needed no treatment. The confused, and presumably very straight man, died of a brain bleed two days later.
A Suspected Wizard’s Final Words
The “witch trials” of the old world have a pretty generous name, considering that they relied less on the rule of law and more on people’s flotation and fire resistance. When Giles Corey was accused of being a wizard in 1692, he knew the exact degree of bullshit he was about to be in for. He also knew another bit of law, in that someone executed for witchcraft would have their property taken away after their death, preventing them from passing it onto their children.
With that in mind, he found a loophole that would make a corporate accountant proud: He refused to plead guilty or not guilty. At the time, without a plea, he couldn’t be tried. Of course, those with the pitchforks didn’t respond with a simple “dagnabbit!” and let him free. Instead, they turned to the approved method for getting a plea out of someone: torture. Specifically, pressing, where the suspect was placed beneath a wooden board while stones were stacked on top of them until they yelped out a choice. Corey, knowing he was fucked either way, but wanting his children to keep their inheritance, stayed quiet until the end, except for his extremely hardcore final words: “More weight.”
The Word That Launched Two Nukes
Japanese is an incredibly complicated language, with many words having highly nuanced or multiple meanings. And so, you’d expect that people translating highly important communications to or from the language would be crack teams, given that the stakes were much higher than effectively communicating what exactly Yoshi is. If you were, for example, trying to negotiate a surrender during World War II, you’d think they’d want to make sure all the kanji was correctly crossed and dotted.
Instead, they went with a tragically subpar translation of Japanese Prime Minister Suzuki’s response to the Potsdam Ultimatum. The ultimatum demanded an immediate surrender or threatened “prompt and utter destruction.” Suzuki responded with the word mokusatsu. Correctly translated given the situation, he was basically using the old political chestnut of “no comment.” Instead, his response was translated as “silent contempt” or “not worthy of response.” The Allies, thinking they’d just been given a Logan-Roy-esque “fuck off,” proceeded with the “prompt and utter destruction,” by which they meant dropping atom bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima 10 days later.
The Word That Almost Launched Even More Nuclear Weapons
During the Cold War, another culture gap not only almost killed millions, but could have possibly ended the world as we know it. The butchered blurb came from Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, from the end of a speech, which was translated as “we will bury you.” Pretty straightforward threat, it would seem, and one you really don’t want to hear from a guy with confirmed access to atom bombs.
In reality, though, he’d been saying something a little less directly murderous, and that was a more common Russian saying: Something effectively translated as “we will be there when you are buried,” or to translate into American euphemisms — “You’re digging your own grave.” Or: “It’s your funeral.” Thankfully, things managed to be de-escalated before Russia and the U.S. kicked off a nuclear badminton match over a decidedly lukewarm bit of bloviation.