Usage Notes

'Evacuate': Does It Refer to People or Places?

Notes on a nonexistent rule

What to Know

Some argue that evacuate can only refer to places, as the word comes from the Latin for "to empty," but evacuate has been widely used in reference to places, buildings, and people for a considerable amount of time and no such rule exists.

evacuation route sign

This use of 'evacuate' has been around since at least the late 19th century.

One of the many things about writing that makes it difficult to enjoy as much as other activities, such as buying new socks or arguing with neighbors, is that one often encounters other people who are bent on telling one that seemingly harmless aspects of it are wrong. Often these pronouncements seem to have some sort of plausibility to them, so that even if we deem them unnecessary they still hang around, leaving a sour whiff of uncertainty whenever the topic comes up. One such topic is evacuate.

Meanings and Origin of 'Evacuate'

Evacuate has a number of possible meanings; the one in question is “to remove especially from a military zone or dangerous area.” Some long-ago usage guides, and some modern-day pedants, hold that phrases such as ‘the people were evacuated’ is incorrect, as buildings (or cities, or states) may be evacuated in this manner, but that if you write ‘the people were evacuated’ what is meant is that the people themselves were emptied.

The idea that only the place from which people are removed may serve as the object of the verb appears to come from the etymology of the word; evacuate comes from the Latin evacuare, meaning “to empty.” This is where we inform you that words change meaning sometimes, especially when they change from one language to another over a period of thousands of years. The fact that evacuate comes from evacuare (and that evacuate can also be used to mean “to empty”) has nothing to do with whether people may be evacuated from a building.

Use of 'Evacuate' for People

This use is not particularly new, as we have been referring to evacuating the wounded since at least the late 19th century.

I went with them to Morée, as they had orders to evacuate the wounded, and transport them to Cloyes and Chartres.
The Morning Post (London, Eng.), 7 Jan. 1871

He told me, with great impressment, that he would soon be in a position to help me “evacuate” my wounded, and that, as he must be away the next day, he had asked some one to be President of the meeting, and they would, no doubt, provide me with carts.
Chicago Tribune, 4 Feb. 1871

All the Prussian wounded are being evacuated.
The Irish Times and Daily Advertiser (Dublin, Ir.), 6 Mar. 1871

If you need a shorter and more trenchant précis of this matter we can offer you a quote from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage: “The respectability of this sense is no longer in question.”

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