Never Say "Die": Euphemisms for Death

"Guess who's not going to shop at Wal-Mart anymore"

visual euphemism
This cartoon image of the Grim Reaper as a personification of death is an example of a visual euphemism. (mstay/Gett Images)

"Euphemism is especially frequent," says linguist John Algeo, "when we must come face to face with the less happy facts of our existence." Here we consider some of the "verbal tranquilizers" employed to avoid dealing head on with death.

Despite what you may have heard, people rarely die in hospitals.

Unfortunately, some patients do "expire" there. And according to hospital records, others experience "therapeutic misadventures" or "negative patient-care outcomes." However, such mishaps can't be nearly as disappointing as the patient who has "failed to fulfill his wellness potential." Most of us, I imagine, would rather die than let down the side in this fashion.

Well, perhaps not die exactly.

We might be willing to "pass on," like dinner guests who take a pass on dessert. Or "depart," as we should after a night out. (They're "no longer with us," our hosts will say.) Unless, of course, we've had a bit too much to drink, and then we might just end up "lost" or "asleep."

But perish the thought.

In the article "Communication About Death and Dying," Albert Lee Strickland and Lynne Ann DeSpelder describe how one hospital worker tiptoed around the forbidden word.

One day, as a medical team was examining a patient, an intern came to the door with information about another patient's death. Knowing that the word "death" was taboo and finding no ready substitute, the intern stood in the doorway and announced, "Guess who's not going to shop at Wal-Mart anymore." Soon, this phrase became the standard way for staff members to convey the news that a patient had died.
( Dying, Death, and Bereavement, ed. by Inge Corless et al. Springer, 2003)

Because strong taboos surround the subject of death in our culture, countless synonyms for dying have evolved over the years. Some of those synonyms, such as the gentler terms suggested above, are regarded as euphemisms. They serve as verbal tranquilizers to help us avoid dealing head on with harsh realities.

Our reasons for using euphemisms are varied. We may be motivated by kindness--or at least politeness. For example, when speaking of "the deceased" at a funeral service, a minister is far more likely to say "called home" than "bit the dust." And to most of us, "resting in peace" sounds more comforting than "taking a dirt nap." (Note that the opposite of a euphemism is a dysphemisma harsher or more offensive way of saying something.)

But euphemisms aren't always employed with such solicitude. A "substantive negative outcome" reported at a hospital may reflect a bureaucratic effort to disguise an intern's blunder. Likewise, in wartime a government spokesperson may refer abstractly to "collateral damage" rather than announce more candidly that civilians have been killed.

"[E]uphemism cannot cancel the reality of death and mortality," says Dorothea von Mücke in an essay on German writer Gotthold Lessing. Nonetheless, "it can prevent the sudden confrontation, the accidental, unprotected encounter with death as the real, as decomposition and undifferentiation" (Body and Text in the Eighteenth Century, 1994).

Euphemisms serve as reminders that communication is (among other things) an ethical activity.

Strickland and DeSpelder elaborate on this point:

Listening carefully to how language is used provides information about the speaker's attitudes, beliefs, and emotional state. Becoming aware of the metaphors, euphemisms, and other linguistic devices that people use when talking about dying and death allows for greater appreciation of the wide range of attitudes toward death and promotes flexibility in communication.

There's no doubt that euphemisms contribute to the richness of language. Used thoughtfully, they can help us avoid hurting people's feelings. But when used cynically, euphemisms can create a haze of deceptions, a layer of lies. And this is likely to remain true long after we've bought the farm, cashed in our chips, given up the ghost, and, as now, reached the end of the line.
 

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