words: Lethal

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The Independent Online

LONDON'S filthy air may be a lot more lethal than at first thought, says the Evening Standard, and the word is guaranteed to bring a shiver. Poisons, weapons, gas chambers, foul diseases, are its natural companions; but air? Its Old English equivalent, deadly, carries only half the menace behind lethal. I'm not sure why this is, since the current meanings are superficially the same. Could it be something to do with the absolute terror of death felt by the ancient Greeks, who lacked the hope of redemption enjoyed by Christian sinners? Lethe was the underworld river whose waters, once tasted, produced instant forgetfulness. Finis. He never came round ...

But, you may say, people who use the word nowadays don't necessarily know all that, do they? - any more than the people (if there are any left) who talk about herculean efforts or augean tasks are thinking of the old muscleman mucking out King Augeus's stable, in fact they may never even have heard the story. In any case lethal may not have come straight from the Greek when we first borrowed it in the 16th or 17th century. It probably came from Latin. The Romans took their letalis, or fatal, from it, as well as letum, which simply meant death.

I don't think this signifies much, though. has always been the word that springs to the lips when it comes to the horrors I have mentioned. (Deadly is less specific: you can be in deadly earnest, never in lethal earnest.) So the tradition stays, or rather a collective memory deep in the world's core. It can't be used lightly, and it probably never will be. It's like the word cancer. Perhaps, long in the future, long after a cure has been found, the metaphor will still be used, and inspire a residual dread, though the reason for it has been quite forgotten.