Monday, June 16, 2008

On Death & Dying

I think that Tim Russert would have been delighted to see the straightforward way that his death was announced in headlines. “Tim Russert dies at 58” was a typical example. What struck me is that very few headlines pussyfooted around the word death. They came right out and used it in an unflinching way. That was Tim’s style.

What makes this notable is that few experiences in human life have given rise to more euphemisms than death. Many people treat death and dying as an affront or an indelicacy; “how dare you die!” is the unspoken reproach. A fart in an elevator is more socially acceptable.

Tiptoeing around the subject of death is nothing new. The Old West produced a passel of euphemisms. Given the hazards of pioneer life, I suppose that a little deflective humor was understandable.

Hang up your saddle. . . . . Bite the dust
Hang up your boots. . . . . Get sawdust in your beard
Drop the reins. . . . . Go over the range
Ride off into the sunset. . . . . Ride the long trail
Cross the Great Divide. . . . . Shake hands with St. Peter
Go to the last roundup. . . . . Go to the great spread in the sky
Pass in your chips. . . . . Turn your toes to the daisies

Today, the euphemisms continue to proliferate.

Bought the farm. . . . . Laid down his burden
Called to a higher service. . . . . Put down his knife and fork,
Cashed in their checks. . . . . Left the building
Croaked. . . . . Met his maker
Crossed the River Styx. . . . . Not with us anymore
Earned a promotion. . . . . Passed (over to the other side)
Gone to greener pastures. . . . . Removed himself from the voting list
Jumped the last hurdle. . . . . Went home

One of my favorites comes from medspeak. Patients never die; there is simply negative care outcome.

SIDEBAR: The Death Clock: when am I going to die?

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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