Don’t Kill Death!

Euphemisms, those delicacy-driven synonyms meant to take the edge off certain words (think expectorate for spit, perspire for sweat, powder room for ladies’ toilet), are softeners for language’s vast, frayed tapestry. Though euphemisms are part of everyday speech and writing, some suck the air out of English when elevated to the status of genteelism, the noun form of genteel (having an aristocratic flavor or affectation). Englishman H. W. Fowler, author of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, first published in 1926, defined the term in the style that made him famous:

[Genteelism is] the rejecting of the ordinary natural word that first suggests itself to the mind, and the substitution of a synonym that is thought to be less soiled by the lips of the common herd, less familiar, less plebeian, less vulgar, less improper, less apt to come unhandsomely betwixt the wind and our nobility.

The venerated word maven, who went on to cite such examples as unpleasant odour for nasty smell, enquire for ask, and retire for the night for go to bed, may be weeping in his grave over the substitution of passing and pass for death and die – a trend reaching from the poorest man on the street to the most hallowed halls of broadcast and print journalism.

To Pass or Not to Pass?

Pass away is a long-standing and reasonable euphemism for die, though the obituaries in my hometown newspaper favored expire, which for me called to mind a parking meter. But what explains the current (and snowballing) avoidance of death? Religion obviously plays a role, with passing implying one’s move to a better place. Yet the King James Bible, which dates from 1611 AD, never shies away from the D-words. (The 23rd Psalm would lose much of its power were it to read, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of passing, I will fear no evil …”) Isn’t forthrightness much more apt, not only because it is one of the hallmarks of good English but also because it acknowledges death as an inherent part of life?

In my humble opinion, we don’t so much wish to deny the reality of death as to jump on the next linguistic bandwagon up the pike. As I note more than once in this site, the multi-sourced barrage of instant communication accelerates our adoption of verbal trends to a startling degree, a fact of life in the new millennium. There are those of us who will catch the ride without much thought and those who will think for ourselves and stand fast … but that, as they say, is a whole other story.

2 Responses to Don’t Kill Death!

  • Erik Kowal says:

    I’m not so sure I agree with your explanation in this case. I think self-protection, or the desire to avoid upsetting others, is the more usual reason for avoiding the direct reference to death. Sometimes you can sense, when some bereaved relative is talking about the death of someone close, that they are doing their best not to choke up. For them, it is easier to talk about ‘passing on’, or even more indirectly, ‘passing’, rather than ‘death’ or ‘dying’.

    Mind you, I still hate those euphemisms.

    To my mind, they are of a piece with those other death-related platitudes such as ‘gone to a better place’, ‘with the angels’ or ‘in the bosom of the Lord’. I guess my atheism doesn’t help me here. (Should I turn to the Lord at this point?)

    • Fred says:

      Erik, my beef is more with the use of pass and passing in print and broadcast media. (To my mind, good journalism is simple and direct.) A face-to-face conversation with another person is a different kettle of fish, and in this case I think we’re all guided by intuition when deciding whether to go with death or pass.

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