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pseudocide

noun [countable/uncountable]

the act of faking your own death because you want to avoid serious personal, financial, or legal problems, and start a new life

[countable]

a. someone who fakes their own death because they want to avoid serious personal, financial, or legal problems, and start a new life

pseudocidal

adjective

'The attraction of pseudocide … The individual who vanishes only to reappear in a different guise is part of a rich tradition.'

The Times 7th December 2007

'Pseudocides try to escape their existence; the rest of us buckle down and deal with things … But to try to escape entirely what makes you yourself is surely doomed by definition. It's like Baron Münchausen, lifting himself out of a swamp by his own hair. (He succeeded, but only in fiction.) Or like the pseudocidal efforts of Canoe Man. And look how that worked out …'

The Guardian 8th August 2009

fake drowning is thought to be the most common method of pseudocide because it makes the absence of a body seem more plausible

When life throws one too many things at you and the going is really tough, how attractive might it seem to re-invent yourself – to walk away from all your problems and begin a completely different existence? Though most of us wouldn't consider this in our wildest dreams, bravely soldiering on through even the most turbulent of times, there are a small minority of people who do just that – scrunch up the page of life, throw it in the bin and grab a clean sheet of paper. This is the essence of pseudocide.

Pseudocide is the (illegal) act of faking your own death, usually because you want to avoid a difficult situation by inventing a completely new identity for yourself. Fake drowning is thought to be the most common method of pseudocide because it makes the absence of a body seem more plausible. Today however, pseudocide is more difficult than it's ever been, with the paperwork required for bank accounts, loans, or official documents such as passports and driving licences, leaving behind a trail of evidence which is difficult to completely erase.

Among the most notable cases of pseudocide in recent history was the British Labour politician John Stonehouse, who in 1974, leaving his wife, daughter and a mountain of debt, deposited his clothes on a Miami beach and fled to Australia to begin a new life with his mistress, calling himself "John Markham". He was later tracked down and in 1976 jailed for seven years on fraud charges.

In British popular culture, one of the most widely-known fictional examples of pseudocide is that of the TV sit-com character Reginald Perrin, played by the late Leonard Rossiter. Reggie is a bored sales executive who lives a stale, suburban life and decides to jack it all in for a more exciting identity. His pseudocide is highlighted in the programme's title sequence where he is seen stripping off his clothes and running into the sea. For many years after the series was broadcast, the act of faking your own death was informally described in British English as doing a Reggie or doing a Reggie Perrin, though this usage has now pretty much disappeared.

Background – pseudocide

The term pseudocide in fact dates back to the early seventies. Though acknowledged in American English for some time, it only came into the radar of British English in late 2007 when amateur canoeist John Darwin, presumed dead after the remains of his canoe washed up on a North Sea shore in 2002, walked into a police station claiming that he had been suffering from amnesia. He was subsequently discovered to have been living in Panama on the spoils of a life insurance payout. Media coverage of the story meant that pseudocide gained currency in British usage, and in 2009 it was beginning to appear in British dictionaries.

Pseudocide is formed from a combination of adjective/prefix pseudo meaning 'not genuine' and suffix -cide, which denotes an act of killing (compare suicide, homicide etc. -cide is derived from Latin -cidium, in turn relating to the verb caedere, meaning 'kill').

Following the pattern of suicide, there is also evidence for a corresponding adjective pseudocidal, and similar collocates such as verb commit and participle adjective attempted.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 28th October 2009.

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