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A disturbing article in the Sunday Times of 26 April 2009 has the following heading and sub-heading:
There is no easy way to describe what happens to human bodies destroyed with bombs. The very idea is sickening and grotesque, yet it happens, and it requires description. The article calls it pulverisation, which has a similar meaning to atomisation but can also commonly mean grinding or pounding, as in food preparation when one pulverises grains, herbs, or meat. These additional connotations could mislead a reader upon first glance, and pulverisation is quite a technical word, hence the scare quotes in the heading and the elegant variation of “blow captives to atoms” in the sub-heading.
There are several phrases with the form blow [object] to . . . . You could describe something being blown to pieces, to bits, or to smithereens, and raise neither eyebrows nor – if the object is inanimate – objections. Blow . . . to pieces and blow . . . to bits may be too grisly for a broadsheet newspaper to use in the context of human violence. Blow . . . to smithereens is too slangy for formal use; it is used in a quote further on in the Times article, and is the kind of vernacular phrase found in boys adventure comics. Blow . . . to kingdom come (i.e. “to heaven”, “to the next world”) is too idiomatic.
Though there is evident difficulty in deciding which words are most appropriate for formal use, blow . . . to atoms still seems an odd choice to me, and not just because I have a scientific background. It may have been selected by elimination, as a relatively neutral and quasi-scientific term. Reducing the phrase to destroy would sidestep many of the problems listed, but perhaps destroy was not specific or sensational enough. Pulverise is equally direct but has the problems mentioned above. Is there an accurate and tactful alternative? It’s a tricky one.