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Friday, June 7, 2013

Death And Its Euphemisms

(Martin Kenny/Flickr)

A self-portrait entitled “The Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated.” (Martin Kenny/Flickr)

While perusing Facebook the other day, we noticed an interesting post by our friend and colleague Michael Goldfarb in London, who was musing about the death — or, more accurately, how we announce it:

When did the verb “to die” and the nouns derived from it—dead, death, etcetera — get excised from American usage to be replaced by “to pass.”

Wind gets passed. I hereby authorize all 500 plus of my Facebook friends to say of me, when the moment comes, that “Michael died, is dead, his death was a tragedy,” etcetera.  Please don’t say, “I’ve passed.” If you need a euphemism, say “I’ve shuffled,” as in shuffled off this mortal coil.

Well, that got us thinking. Has “dying” gone out of style? And how do we know whether to say someone has died, versus “passed away”?

We asked word guru Ben Zimmer, executive producer of The Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, and former “On Language” columnist for the New York Times. He told us:

I wouldn’t say it’s falling out of favor. But in American English — as in other varieties of English and other languages — there can be many, many different ways of describing death.

There’s the straight forward verb “to die.” But then we have more euphemistic expressions.

So something like “to pass away” softens the image of death a little bit. That term is probably the most favored euphemism for death.

But, you know, actually in journalism they tell you if you’re writing an obituary, you should say “die” instead of “pass away” or something poetic like “departed this life.”

Death is one of those areas that attracts a lot of euphemisms. Sometimes the euphemistic terms may be religious and focusing on the afterlife. So, if you say someone is “going to depart this life” or “meet his maker.”

But you know, English is a very rich language, and it has not just euphemisms, which make things softer, but also dysphemisms, which make things rougher and blunter.

So we have these colorful idioms like “kick the bucket” or “cash in your chips” or “buy the farm.” There are all sorts of rough and ready expressions that we use for death when we’re not being so careful.


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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