Word Nerd: Homer, Queen and talking about death

“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness.”
~ Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

I recalled this droll quip that highlights the inexact language associated with death after listening to a CBC podcast titled “A Word About the Deceased” that aired last October.

The thesis of the podcast was that in our modern society most people have difficulty dealing with death.

Its narrator, Katherine Ashenburg, bemoaned the use of such terms as “lost,” “gone,” passed” and “passed away” to replace “died.” I, too, dislike most of these terms (and would add “departed” to her list) because they are imprecise. Ashenburg mentioned that she offered condolences to a woman who had told her that her husband had “gone,” only to be informed that he had skipped town rather than died.

The term “passed,” I believe, should be restricted to gall or kidney stones and intestinal gas. But does “passed away” even qualify as euphemistic any more given its ubiquitous use?

Ashenburg also used the adjectives “vague,” “amorphous, “ and “prettifying” to describe the term “passed way.” I don’t believe it is in any way unclear. Frequently euphemisms come to embody so fully the thing being euphemized that they demand replacement. I think “passed away” is in this category.

While it may have originally been imbued with religious significance of “passing to heaven,” it is now used by most people devoid of this content. Ashenburg notes that a century ago people got sick at home and died at home whereas nowadays we often delegate these functions to professionals.

However, this doesn’t translate into an increased number of euphemisms for death, for in earlier eras there were even more circumlocutions for our final passage.

The OED defines a euphemism as a “figure of speech that consists in the substitution of a word or expression of comparatively favourable implication or less unpleasant associations, instead of the harsher or more offensive one that would more precisely designate what is intended.”

Insofar as “passed away” involves a substitution, even though one that isn’t misleading, it qualifies as a euphemism. But former OED editor Robert Burchfield observed: “a language without euphemism would be a defective instrument of communication.”

While in previous eras people accepted the inevitability of death more gracefully than nowadays, every epoch has used euphemisms associated with death, such as the term “grim reaper,” widely used in the Middle Ages.

Often death has been seen as a master competitor we try in vain to defeat in a variety of activities, such as “jumping the last hurdle” (fox-hunting and steeplechase) and “cashing in your chip” (poker).

Some common euphemisms for death merit more explanation.

Most etymologists believe that “kick the bucket” derives from the process of slaughtering a pig. A pig’s throat would be cut while hanging upside down.

The bucket referred to a wooden block and the rope thrown over the pulley that hoisted the animal. Because hoisting the block was akin to raising a bucket from a well, the block was called a “bucket.”

It is open to conjecture as to whether the dying animal would actually kick the bucket or whether the action just refers to the animal’s feet being lashed to the block.

Another mysterious death euphemism, quite prevalent in northern England, is “popping one’s clogs.” A clog is a wooden-soled shoe that was worn by poor mill workers in 19th- and early 20th-century England.

The verb “pop” here refers to “taking something to a pawnbroker,” as the dead person would no longer have need for his shoes.

And who would have thought that the band Queen was effectively quoting Homer’s The Iliad in the song Another One Bites the Dust? In 1870, American poet William Cullen Bryant translated The Iliad into English where we find this line in Homer’s epic poem, “His fellow warriors, many a one, fall round him to the earth and bite the dust.”

Not surprisingly, some of the death euphemisms of yesteryear have a strong religious content and some are even biblical quotes.

For example, “to rest in Abraham’s bosom” comes from this passage in Luke 16:22, “And it came to pass that the beggar {Lazarus} died and was carried by the angel into Abraham’s bosom.” Also the expression “way of all flesh” derives from a translation in the 1609 Douay Bible from 111 Kings 2:3.

Let me conclude by hoping you have a long inning before you shuffle off this mortal coil.

Howard’s latest book is How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.


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