Here and Now (WBUR), “Death And Its Euphemisms”

June 7, 2013

Interview on the WBUR show “Here and Now” about euphemisms and dysphemisms for dying. (June 7, 2013).

Has “dying” gone out of style? And how do we know whether to say someone has died, versus “passed away”?

We asked word guru Ben Zimmer, executive producer of The Visual Thesaurus and, and former “On Language” columnist for the New York Times. He told us:

I wouldn’t say it’s falling out of favor. But in American English — as in other varieties of English and other languages — there can be many, many different ways of describing death.

There’s the straight forward verb “to die.” But then we have more euphemistic expressions.

So something like “to pass away” softens the image of death a little bit. That term is probably the most favored euphemism for death.

But, you know, actually in journalism they tell you if you’re writing an obituary, you should say “die” instead of “pass away” or something poetic like “departed this life.”

Death is one of those areas that attracts a lot of euphemisms. Sometimes the euphemistic terms may be religious and focusing on the afterlife. So, if you say someone is “going to depart this life” or “meet his maker.”

But you know, English is a very rich language, and it has not just euphemisms, which make things softer, but also dysphemisms, which make things rougher and blunter.

So we have these colorful idioms like “kick the bucket” or “cash in your chips” or “buy the farm.” There are all sorts of rough and ready expressions that we use for death when we’re not being so careful.

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