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shameless pleading

Casual / Casualty

 Laid back, to a greater or lesser degree.

Dear Word Detective:  It has often popped into my head that there must be a connection between “casual” and “casualty.” I’ve tried to come up with a logical sequence that leads from one to the other, with no luck. I’ve looked things up in online dictionaries, with ditto. Can you tell me if these two words are etymologically related; and if so, how? — Rosemarie Ekses.

That’s a good question. In fact, I know that’s a good question because I actually answered it way back in the aughts, as we apparently now call them. But for some reason that column never made it into my archives at word-detective.com, which means, in our shiny new cloud-based universe, that it doesn’t really exist. I’m not sure how this sort of thing happens, but it’s a big reason why I still own several thousand real books. Anybody wanna buy a Ned Ludd t-shirt?

That question way back when was prompted (Warning: Teen Flashback Alert) by Buffy the Vampire Slayer noting in one episode that she didn’t like the term “casualty” because she felt it made death sound “casual.” I suppose that’s understandable, although I’d be more worried about how the similarity of the two words might cast a pall over Casual Friday at the office. In any case, “casual” and “casualty” are closely related in origin, but there’s no hidden logic behind their wildly different meanings; it’s all just a case of linguistic drift over several centuries.

The adjective “casual” and the noun “casualty” are both derived from the Latin “casus,” which simply means “event.” Another “casus” derivative, “case,” appeared in the 13th century and originally also meant “event,” but evolved over time to mean “an instance of something happening” or “the state of matters regarding a thing or person” (e.g., “a case of mistaken identity”).

“Casual” appeared in English in the 14th century, initially meaning “by chance, accidental,” a sense we still use in phrases like “casual encounter.” Later meanings included “unreliable,” “haphazard” and “free-spirited,” which in the 20th century settled into the modern “casual” meaning “informal, not fixed or rigid,” “unimportant” and “unconcerned.”

The noun “casualty” first appeared in the 15th century (originally in the form “casuality”) and, by analogy to “casual,” originally meant simply “an accident or chance occurrence.” But by the 16th century, “casualty” had narrowed to mean specifically “an unfortunate event” (thus the widespread use of “casualty” in the names of insurance companies). In military usage, this sense of “casualty” took on the technical meaning of “losses sustained by a body of men in the field or on service, by death, desertion, etc.” (Oxford English Dictionary) and, in reference to individuals, “soldiers killed, wounded or injured.” In modern use, “casualty” can apply to soldiers (or civilians) either injured or killed, but often is used to mean only fatalities.

On a slightly cheerier note, “casualty” is also often used today to mean “a person or thing lost, destroyed or superseded” in a metaphorical sense, as in “The iconic Detroit ‘muscle cars’ of the sixties became casualties of rising oil prices in the 1970s.”

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