Here and Now with Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
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, 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.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
Robin and Jeremy

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

June 6 Comment

Introducing A New Here & Now Website

Coming June 9, 2016, Here & Now listeners and visitors will experience our stories and journalism online in a whole new way.

June 3 Comment

Teenagers Create Impromptu Exhibit At San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art

As the pair toured the museum, they wondered if they could do better. So 16-year-old Kevin Nguyen decided to get creative.

June 3 3 Comments

‘Silver Linings Playbook’ Author Explores Conformity, Mental Health In New Teen Novel

Matthew Quick published his fourth young adult book, "Every Exquisite Thing," this week.

June 2 13 Comments

Do Meal Kits Provide Great Taste Along With Convenience?

Resident chef Kathy Gunst tested a multitude of meal kits, and gives co-host Jeremy Hobson the inside scoop.