The language curmudgeon . . .

Who was that suspicious suspect?

Conrad Weisert
© Information Disciplines, Inc., Chicago—7 October 2009

NOTE: This document may be circulated or quoted from freely, as long as the copyright credit is included.
  • suspicere: verb (past participle suspectus)—to look askance at, to suspect
  • suspicio f: noun—mistrust, suspicion
  • suspiciosus: adj.—feeling suspicion

—from Cassell's New Latin Dictionary, 1968

Although speakers of modern English are warned not to rely on classical Latin as a model for grammar or vocabulary, it's helpful to keep in mind the original intent of the common English words derived from the above. It's the foundation of not one but two misusages that we hear almost every day from broadcast newscasters.

We may barely notice a fleeting mistake in grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation, but when the same mistake is repeated over and over by multiple broadcasters it becomes irritating.

The anonymous "suspect"

A suspect (noun) is a person who is suspected, usually by the police, of having committed an offense. The word is not a synonym for assailant, robber, or rapist. Yet local newscasters across America1 inform their audience that:

"The suspect knocked the woman down before grabbing her purse and escaping on foot."
or "The suspect got away, and police have no clue as to the identity of the suspect."

I always want to confront the speaker and ask: "Really? Who is the suspect?"

"Well, they don't know," he or she would respond.

"Then there isn't any suspect, is there?" I would reply, ending the dialogue.

The most absurd use comes after the police apprehend an individual. The newscaster may then refer to the prisoner as "the alleged suspect"!

Have you ever seen a "suspicious passenger"?

We may hear that airport security detained a "suspicious passenger" for several hours. In public places signs remind us to watch for "suspicious packages".

I've been a suspicious passenger myself (feeling suspicion) but I don't think that's what the reporter or the signs meant. Furthermore, I don't see how an inanimate package can be suspicious of anything.

What they meant was a person or a package that was "arousing suspicion" through menacing appearance or unusual behavior. There's more excuse for this usage than for the misuse of "suspect", since there's no alternative single English word that conveys exactly the intended meaning. Since it's at best ambiguous, however, I try to avoid using "suspicious" in the sense of "arousing suspicion".

1—The examples cited in this article are taken from Americn television and radio, both local and (less often) national network. I welcome hearing from readers in other English-speaking countries whether these practices have spread there.

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Last modified 9 October 2009