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Wilf Popoff

Getting Rid of Death

Tattered death flag

Okay, I understand. Most of us simply do not want to die. And over the last two centuries the western world has managed to postpone the occasion: we’ve doubled our lifespan.

Postponement, however, is not eradication. Die we must, eventually, although there now appears to be a workaround. Many people are attempting to defeat mortality by substituting die and death with the asinine euphemism pass away and its variants.

I’ve read death notices all my life. As a journalist I had to stay informed. After leaving newspapers I kept up the habit, perhaps following Pete Seeger’s advice in the chorus to his ditty on old age.* He checks the death notices daily to see if his is among them.

Tattered death flagMy enduring attention to this section qualifies me to offer some observations, and I can assure you hardly anyone dies anymore. When I began pondering this advance I wondered whether it reflected Canadians’ growing devotion to politeness.

I bet Americans don’t pass away, I thought. These people are tough; they carry guns and are ready to die! A scan of several U.S. newspapers proved me wrong. Americans no longer die.

Then I checked the U.K., seat of our beloved English language. Surely they wouldn’t resort to understatement. Wrong again, although there seemed to be a few more deaths on average than in North America.

I wondered whether my memory was faulty. Was I just imagining how we announced deaths in the past? I checked an assortment of Canadian notices from 50 years ago. We all died then; I found only one elderly woman who passed away.

Why must we pretend death doesn’t happen? Frank Faulk, the CBC Radio documentary producer, notes there are 200 euphemisms for die in English. His July broadcast, however, reveals that pass away is favoured. Some religious people interviewed defended avoiding die because the soul never dies, but passes on.

Fair enough! But weren’t we more religious 50 years ago?

*How do I know my youth is all spent? My get up and go has got up and went!

 

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About the author

Wilf Popoff

When Wilf Popoff started editing, John Diefenbaker was prime minister, editors used pencils, and IBM mainframe computers were moving from vacuum tubes to transistors. Wilf is a former editor of Active Voice.

6 Comments on “Getting Rid of Death

  • Katherine Barber

    says:

    Even “pass away” is becoming dépassé. Nowadays people “pass”.

    • Frances Peck

      says:

      Argh: “pass”! Eugenia Twitterbaker passed means…what? Passed her calculus course? Passed me on the highway? Passed by but neglected to wave? It is the most egregious euphemism.

      • Dwain Richardson

        says:

        It’s all fine and dandy to edit out words we believe have extremely negative overtones. But I agree with Frances: replacing “die” with “pass” can lead to ambiguity. Besides, even if writers were to write “pass away,” “go to heaven,” or some other euphemism, they are indirectly saying that some person died. As Wilf Popoff has rightly said, we will all die one day or another, whether we like it or not.

        I understand the need to flower texts with different words, expressions, and proverbs to show off creativity and variety, but I think we sometimes push the envelope too far.

        That’s my two cents.

      • Melva McLean

        says:

        Centuries past (not passed) used to avoid mentioning death in obits and on tombstones and in quite creative ways. “Once he played five aces; now he plays a harp!” for an obit in Tombstone. “Here lies the father of 29. He would have had more. But he didn’t have time,” on a tombstone in Missouri.

        I want an editor of my obit to do something like that.

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    I wrote a short item for the community league newsletter about a longtime resident who died recently. I am waiting to see if the editor changes the word “died.”

  • Eva van Emden

    says:

    Some people suggest that the use of “die” versus “pass away” is related to social class. In the “U and Non-U” (English upper class compared to the aspiring middle class) usage lists discussed by Alan Ross and Nancy Mitford in the fifties, “die” was considered to be U and “pass on” non-U (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U_and_non-U_English). (The U usage list has fewer euphemisms and more plain language in general.) Bryan Garner, in his entry on “Class Distinctions” in Garner’s Modern American Usage, also lists “died” as a U vocabulary marker for American English, versus “passed on” or “passed away” as non-U usage (http://bit.ly/1ohbuJj).

    If the use of “pass on” has become more widespread, does that reflect a fear of appearing snobbish as well as crude?

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