Thursday, November 1, 2012

Passing Away into Obscurity: An Exploration of Death and Euphemism

A popular adage is that the only things inevitable in life are death and taxes. It is the former that will be the focus of this essay. Death is one of the few constants that has pervaded human existence since civilisation on Earth began. This is probably why there are so many linguistic variants of to die in the English language. People have always been dying, be it through natural causes, terminal illnesses, freak accidents or executions. Through this essay, I will contend that different causes of death have given rise to synonyms for to die. I will also explore the way that religion and spirituality influences the way people speak of death. Examining the use of to die as an intransitive verb is unfeasible without devoting attention to the transitive verb to kill, and I will elucidate how euphemisms for to kill reflect a broader societal treatment of death.  

Before deconstructing the socially-conditioned ways we use variations of to die, it is worth tracing the origins of these variations. Louise Pound (1936) highlights six categories that euphemistic expressions for death and dying can belong to. For the purpose of this essay, only four will be explored. The first of these is “sentimental and poetic expressions.” (Pound, 1936, p. 196). Examples include is out of his misery, laid to rest and passed away. Many expressions of this kind are derived from high literature, but some can be traced to funeral celebrants or newspaper biographers (Pound, 1936, p. 196). These expressions evoke peaceful, dignified deaths, so it can be gauged that we would use them when referring to a loved one’s death, and would rarely use it when making reference to a criminal who had been executed. A metaphor of “departure, setting out, return” (Pound, 1936, p. 197) such as gone out of the darkness into the light connotes the idea of an afterlife and generally indicates that the speaker of the utterance wants the deceased to ‘live on’ in some capacity. The second category of expressions denoted by Pound (1936, p. 198) is “flippant and slang expressions.” According to Pound (1936, p. 198), many of these phrases originated as jargon amongst groups such as college students, pioneer farmers, gangsters and playwrights. The idiomatic expression kick the bucket has unknown origins, although there are two commonly-attested theories as to how the usage came about (Ammer, 1997, p. 359). One is connected to execution by hanging, in that a bucket is kicked out from underneath a person to let them hang. The other is linked to the slaughter of pigs, as an alternative meaning of bucket is “a beam from which something may be suspended.” (Ammer, 1997, p. 359). Both of these theories involve physical suffering, so it can be deduced that most people would use the phrase kick the bucket only when speaking about people they dislike, or when a specific register caters for informality. Many of the expressions synonymous with to die are derived from fields of work and recreation (Pound, 1936, p. 199). For example, cashed his cheques refers to the work of a bank teller, while his race is run is a term commonly used in sports commentary (Pound, 1936 p. 199). The fact that such expressions have been lifted from certain registers and applied to wider society is a testament to the ubiquity of death. It could also be that people use such euphemisms because work and recreation are so instrumental in the lives of humans, who want to think of death as a process rather than as a sudden stop. A multitude of terms have been sourced from methods of capital punishment, including hanging, lynching and electrocution (Pound, 1936, p. 200). Examples such as go up a tree and fry are “grim in their playfulness and often only too pictorial.” (Pound, 1936, p. 200). Hence, these expressions would be used to describe violent, visceral deaths, and could not be used figuratively in reference to the death of someone with a terminal illness, for instance.

Many euphemisms for to die are used exclusively in religious registers, as death is intrinsically associated with the notion of an afterlife. Just as faith alleviates the fear of death harboured by some people, death euphemisms “kill death by robbing it of its direct and threatening name.” (Neaman & Silver, as cited in Corr, Nabe & Corr, 2012, p. 96). When explaining death to a child, a religious explanation can help elucidate the biological process of dying (Talwar, Harris & Schleifer, 2011, p. 107). The death of a grandparent can be described biologically: “Grandpa’s heart stopped beating,” and this can be cushioned by “Grandpa’s spirit is in heaven, now.” Doing this establishes the finality of death, while offering a way for the child to assign meaning to the loved one’s death. The influence of religious thought on language about death is highly evident when we consider the amount of euphemisms for to die that imply the passing of the soul into another place. As previously mentioned, Louise Pound (1936, pp. 197-198) highlights several metaphors of “departure, setting out, return”. Many of these presuppose the existence of a higher deity or an afterlife. The phrase gone to meet their Maker connotes that the soul of the deceased is conscious. Gone to the Great Beyond calls to mind an idyllic paradise—a place that is perhaps greater than Earth. Expressions such as these must be used with discretion. If a Christian attempted to console an atheist about a deceased relative by saying “Don’t be sad. He has gone to meet his Maker,” the atheist is likely to be offended.  Faith-based euphemisms for to die are most appropriate when uttered by a person who personally knows the deceased. An obituary is one such context where religious euphemisms for to die are common. Vicki Oliver examined 100 obituaries from The Times and the Daily Telegraph in an effort to discover how people depict death, linguistically (Stockwell, 2002, pp. 30-31). She discovered that only 25 of the 100 obituaries featured the word ‘died’. The only conceptual metaphor used was life is a battle, referring to a baby who had “sadly lost her battle”. Thus, talking about death is a “critical discourse moment”, or a “taboo area that needs to be linguistically negotiated.” (Stockwell, 2002, p. 31). By using a religious euphemism, some of death’s potency is relieved. Rather than ceasing to exist, a person is said to “pass” into another realm.

Having examined the multitude of words and phrases synonymous with to die, it is worth exploring the sociolinguistic variations associated with the transitive verb to kill. The deliberate ending of a life is, by nature, more horrific and shameful than a natural death, which is why euphemisms are abundant when speaking of killing. Gerry Abbott (2010) writes that the gangster films of his youth were laden with euphemistic terms for killing, such as wasting, putting away, snuffing out, bumping off and taking for a ride. These expressions would have assisted the dramatisation of the films, while dehumanising the characters who were being killed. By utilising these terms, the screenwriters position the viewer to side with the murderers. Euphemisms for to kill do not only pervade the world of fiction. They are especially common in masking the harsh realities of warfare. During the Cold War, prisoners were silenced, sidelined and liquidated (Abbott, 2010). A defining aspect of the Cold War is that it never featured any direct military action, and was characterised by prolonged tension. Thus, such euphemisms were consistent with the non-violence associated with the war. In wars where armed conflict is at the fore, the euphemisms become more purposeful and more widespread. The neologism Nukespeak was coined by Paul Chilton, and is used to “promote the goals and objectives of those who support the development and deployment of nuclear arms.” (Elliot & Reginald, 2007, p. 205). Nukespeak attempts to familiarise the realities of nuclear warfare, and is complete with grammatical rules and specialised metaphors. Abbott (2010) takes exception to the use of this language, as he believes it “attempts to obfuscate military actions, to hide their mistakes and to excuse the perpetrators.” The euphemism ethnic cleansing is controversial because the verb cleanse has pleasant connotations which contradict the gruesome act of slaughtering civilians (Abbott, 2010). It is a deliberate, calculated action, and thus the term has no place outside the context of persecution. A euphemism that has crept into conventional use is weapons of mass destruction, used to describe bombs and missiles which have the power to obliterate large populations and structures at once. Once again, Abbott (2010) decries the proliferation of Nukespeak, arguing that destruction is generally associated with inanimate objects, which positions us to disregard the numerous civilian deaths involved in warfare. In a similar way, we seldom mention the ‘killing’ of pets. They are either put down or destroyed (Abbott, 2010). An interesting consideration is that, upon a cursory glance, destroy seems almost dysphemistic, as opposed to euphemistically comforting. Further examination prompts the realisation that the destruction of a pet, or of any living creature, creates a psychological disconnect between the killer and the animal or person being killed. By destroying a living entity, the entity is dehumanised (and not necessarily deprived of life), constricting the potential for empathy. While the connotations of individual expressions may differ, it stands that most euphemisms related to death reflexively imply a foundation that was taken away. That is, we cannot lose someone if they were never living to begin with (Corr et al., 2012).   

Fundamentally, death is still a taboo in our society. Despite the fact that people die each day, it is a human trait to avoid unpleasant matters by talking about them figuratively. Hence, euphemisms are utilised to strip death of its gravity. Many of the terms analogous with to die were sourced from professions and execution methods, and have been recontextualised for common use by wider society. Faith and religion have greatly influenced the way we talk about dying, and have inspired many of the poetic and sentimental expressions synonymous with to die. Just as we use euphemisms to talk about dying, the act of killing is also softened, and this reflects a human anxiety over mortality. 

Abbott, G. (2010). Dying and killing: Euphemisms in current English. English Today. 26(4),
Ammer, C. (1997). The American heritage dictionary of idioms. Boston, Massachusetts:
Houghton Mifflin.              
Corr, C. A., Nabe, C. M., & Corr, D. M. (2012). Death and dying, life and living. Belmont,
California: Wadsworth. 
Elliot, J. M., & Reginald, R. (2007). The arms control, disarmament, and military security
dictionary. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio.
Pound, L. (1936). American euphemisms for dying, death, and burial: An anthology.
American Speech. 11(3), 195-202.
Stockwell, P. (2002). Sociolinguistics: A resource book for students. London: Routledge.
Talwar, V., Harris, P. L., & Schleifer, M. (2011). Children’s understanding of death: From
biological to religious conceptions. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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