During the Spanish Civil War and for a time after it people were taken for a walk, a walk from which they never returned; back in the 1970s and 1980s, when many South American countries had military dictatorships, people went missing and were described in Spanish as desaparecidos. Now, this is quite correct. Desaparecido is the past participle of desaparecer, which means disappear, but one curiosity of the Spanish language is that past participles of intransitive verbs can have active meanings. In Spanish, desaparecidos means missing and nothing more; it is used for people who are lost but not officially declared dead after floods, earthquakes and so on. It was certainly used euphemistically in Chile, Argentina and the rest for people about whose fate there could be little doubt, but linguistically it was above reproach just as, for example, El accidente ocurrido ayer means The accident that happened yesterday.
But English doesn’t work that way. English past participles are passive*, so people who saw the Spanish usage assumed that there was some sinister implication that the people had been disappeared. This is remarkably ingrained in the English linguistic psyche. About ten years ago I wrote to Timothy Garton Ash correcting him on this point in one of his books; he kindly replied expressing his thanks for the correction. Yet even now Robert Fisk writes in today’s Independent:
Masood Janjua was 44 when he was “disappeared” on 30 July 2005.
There can be no excuse for this kind of thing unless we are to regard it as now being a characteristic of standard English. In that case, however, there is no need for the quotation marks.
*With a small number of exceptions: The escaped prisoner for example.
Update 17.00: The same seems to be true of French (Le Monde):
L'avocat général a requis vendredi de quinze à vingt ans de prison contre Jacques Viguier, professeur de droit toulousain jugé en appel par la cour d'assises du Tarn pour le meurtre de son épouse, Suzanne, mystérieusement disparue depuis le 27 février 2000.
I return to this point in a later post.