Can the word ‘stampede’ undermine crowd safety?

Can the word ‘stampede’ undermine crowd safety?
Photo by José Martín Ramírez Carrasco / Unsplash

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines Stampede as:

  • a sudden panicked rush of a number of horses, cattle, or other animals: the herd was fleeing back to the high land in a wild stampede.
  • a sudden rapid movement or reaction of a mass of people in response to a particular circumstance or stimulus: a stampede of bargain hunters.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines Stampede as:

  • an occasion when many large animals or many people suddenly all move quickly and in an uncontrolled way, usually in the same direction at the same time, especially because of fear

Merriam-Webster defines Stampede as:

  • a wild headlong rush of frightened animals
  • a mass movement of people at a common impulse

And finally, the Collins Dictionary definition is:

  • a group of people or animals run in a wild, uncontrolled way.

When I think of 'stampede', I think of The Lion King, and the scene (I can no longer watch) where Simba loses Mufasa. I think of Fawlty Towers, where Basil is trying to understand Mrs. Richard's heightened expectations of a view, citing "herds of wildebeests sweeping majestically across the plain". Finally, I recall the asthmatic rhino at the back of the mass chaos through the town centre in Jumanji.

Is this what humans do?

Stampedes and Crowds

The word 'stampede' is often used to describe various forms of crowd incidents including crushing, crowd collapse, crowd turbulence, or evacuation due to fire, explosion, attack or infrastructure failure. While its definition might be closely applicable to scenarios of emergency evacuation, its narrative does not match scenarios such as;

  • Crowd Turbulence where the crowd density is so high the crowd dynamic shifts and begins to act like a liquid, self propagating wave motions through the crowd.
  • Crowd Crush where there is extremely high density in the crowd, people lose individual control over their bodies and the crowd dynamic shifts to acting like a solid.
  • Progressive Crowd Collapse where individuals in the crowd lose balance (due to a slip, infrastructure failure or angle of ground) and fall causing a domino effect crowd collapse.

Yet 'stampede' is often used to describe most crowd incidents including the ones described above. What I find most concerning however, is what 'stampede' brings to mind. Using this word to describe crowd incidents influences how we perceive the behaviour of the crowd, and particularly what action we take next.


In an article in the New York Times on the rise of extremism, the writer, Charles M. Blow, notes that using the word 'mule' to describe a person who carries illegal drugs across borders, dehumanises them:

Once you animalize people, you have, by definition, dehumanized them, and that person is no longer worthy of being treated humanely.

If 'mule' dehumanises a person, can 'stampede' dehumanise a crowd?