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I first encountered the sentences below on p 171, The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution (2004; but the newest edition dates at 2015) by Linda Monk JD.

I now understand and so do not question: the meaning of 'The Constitution is not a suicide pact' (thanks to this answer on ELU); the meaning of 'suicide pact'; its status here as a metaphorical.

Am I correct that the 'pact' refers to the US Constitution?

But I still find strange the use of 'suicide': why does it make sense to metaphorise (the existence of) conflicting principles within the Constitution as 'suicide'?

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    Disclaimer: This is just me trying to figure out the phrase in plain English; it's not legal advice. The phrase 'The Constitution is not a suicide pact' essentially means that if we choose to uphold the laws but as a result destroy ourselves somehow, that will be as if we are committing suicide (real or idealized, it doesn't matter, I believe), and thus turning the Constitution into a suicide pact. – Damkerng T. Sep 12 '14 at 7:25
  • @DamkerngT. +!. Thanks. Your comment (as always) helps! – Accounting Mar 24 '16 at 5:38
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Suicide : ending one's own life.

Suicide Pact : two or more people agreeing to end their own lives together.

These are literal meanings.


A country (or nation) cannot commit suicide in the literal sense, so you have to be looking at a figurative sense, with respect to a nation/country.

Suicide : Ending the current form of the nation by [the people of] the nation.

Suicide pact : An agreement by the people of the nation to end [the current form of] the nation.


Using the figurative sense, the EL&U answer(s) to the larger question should become clearer.


Response to comment query - I'm not asking for another explanation, but rather how to connect the meaning of the words to the ELU ones. I still don't fully apprehend the missing linguistic pieces. Would you mind doing this?

Consider a different idiom; the Kiss of Death. Here we have a similar sort of thing: One can indeed be kissed and the outcome can be death (in an unfortunate case). This originates (I believe) from Christian writings where Judas surreptitiously exposed Jesus to the Romans by kissing him, declaring him to be the messiah and leading to his subsequent death. This phrase is also used in Italian Mafia circles where if a gang member is kissed by the gang boss, that member is slated for execution. These are real kisses resulting in real deaths (similar to suicide pacts that involve multiple real suicides)

In general use 'Kiss of Death' is now used to mean 'something that precipitates the end of something else' and can be used as 'Being caught taking drugs was the kiss of death for the athletes career' - no one gets kissed and no-one dies. It can be used on inanimate objects too - 'Removing the Start Menu was the kiss of death for Windows 8'. That is even further removed from the literal meaning.

The switch from literal to figurative/metaphorical is what is happening in the original 'suicide pact'. It's not something that is easy to describe. Native speakers grow up with these phrases and it seems natural to extend their use to almost anything even if the things the phrases are applied to cannot 'take' that application. So, not only can an operating system not be kissed, it can't be killed either and in the same way a country/nation cannot commit suicide.

I guess, for a non-native speaker, some of these leaps in the application of a set phrase onto something that simply cannot do what the set phrase suggests is quite a difficult concept. I hope this attempt at an explanation helps to clarify a little more.

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  • +1. Thanks. Would you please enlarge further? I still don't fully understand how this implies the ELU answers. – Accounting Oct 11 '14 at 14:38
  • Will you please to respond in your answer, and not as a comment? – Accounting Oct 11 '14 at 14:38
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    @LePressentiment I'm not sure I can expand much further without writing an answer to the ELU question and all three of the ELU answers explain what it means; my answer here was only to show that the phrase 'suicide pact' is used figuratively not literally. There is no actual 'pact' and no actual 'suicide'. – Frank Oct 11 '14 at 15:22
  • Thanks. I'm not asking for another explanation, but rather how to connect the meaning of the words to the ELU ones. I still don't fully apprehend the missing linguistic pieces. Would you mind doing this? – Accounting Oct 12 '14 at 5:26
  • @LePressentiment I've added a bit at the bottom of my answer that might help you to understand the linguistic 'leap' that this phrase is making. – Frank Oct 12 '14 at 13:59
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Frank's definitions of suicide and suicide pact work, but they don't really cover the nuance of this expression.

So, to start, in the US, the Constitution is the supreme law of the land; all other laws must comply with it. If they don't, they are struck (or the Constitution can be amended to allow it, but this is very difficult and unlikely). What this can mean is that certain actions which may be unpopular can be mandated by the Constitution as a result.

Now, when you hear the phrase "The Constitution is not a suicide pact", the speaker is usually arguing that some Constitutionally mandated course of action would result in the US being severely injured in some way, and that as a result, that mandated action should be ignored. To use current events as an example (I'm going to try and be neutral in my phrasing here, and not espouse a particular view), the recent immigration block. One side is arguing that blocking immigration based on nationality or ethnicity violates equal protection in the Constitution. The other believes that the instability in the affected regions means immigrants from those regions are more likely to act against the US, and thus should be blocked. A person holding that second view might use this phrase, that the "Constitution is not a suicide pact", to argue that the equal protection clause does not mandate the US to harm itself by accepting those immigrants or refugees.

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