Patricia T. O'Conner on Euphemisms for Death, and the Life of Language

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Our word maven Patricia T. O'Conner talks about the many euphemisms we have for death—pushing up daisies, bought the farm, kicked the bucket—and she answers questions about English language and grammar. An updated and expanded third edition of her book, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, is now out in paperback, along with Origins of the Specious, written with Stewart Kellerman.

Comments [47]

Catherine from Massapeuqa

Got it!
O sign: patient doing very poorly with mouth gaping open in a circle for hours at a time.
Q sign: the next phase, tongue hanging out... death is imminent or actual.

Seems to be taught in medical school these days but was originally from "The House of God: The Classic Novel of Life and Death in an American Hospital" by Samuel Shem M.D. originally published in 1978, and later in paper back.

Nov. 17 2011 12:19 AM
Harry from NYC

I've always been amused about the use of collective nouns in US vs. GB. Here we say "the committee has decided", where the British would say "the committee have decided." How did this varying usage come to be? Thank you.

Nov. 16 2011 02:06 PM
Fred Barrett from Blauvelt, NY

I've noticed lately that many interviewees start their answers with "so". I'm sure Leonard can verify. This phenomenon has, all of a sudden, happened over the last year. What's going on?

Nov. 16 2011 02:03 PM
Elias from Queens

How about "pleaded" or "pled"?

Nov. 16 2011 01:57 PM
Eve from NJ

As far as veterans of the police force, etc., military personnel become veterans after their term of service has been completed. This could be as little as two years in the past.

Nov. 16 2011 01:56 PM
Gregory from The Bronx

Daffy Duck changed the placement of the accent of "despicable"; Walter Winchell coined the phrase "disc jockey" in a reference to Martin Block.

Nov. 16 2011 01:55 PM
Mariana from east village, nyc

My father ownsa a book of sermons dating back to 1799 published in New Hampshire. For most of the words in this book the letter 's' is replaced with the letter 'f'. For example happiness was spelled hapinefs. Any insight?

Nov. 16 2011 01:55 PM
Celia from east villlage

When did "absolutely" replace "yes" as an affirmative response? You rarely hear people answer "yes" to a question when they can use the much more ostentatious "abolutely".

Nov. 16 2011 01:55 PM
maggie from morristown

Here is a fact about English pronunciation I learned while teaching ESL:
If a 2 syllable word has both a verb & a noun form, the stress of the noun is always on the first syllable; the stress of the verb is always on the 2nd.

CON tract (N) conTRACT (v), same with
export, progress, convert etc.

One case where a shift is occurring is permit, in which the noun pronunciation is now sometimes stressed on the second syllable.

Nov. 16 2011 01:54 PM
David from West Hempstead

Amusing note on pronunciation of veteran: Every single person affiliated with the NFL says "vet'ran."

It is immensely irritating.

Nov. 16 2011 01:54 PM

What's Ms. O'Conners email address. I tried ask@Grammarphobia and it was wrong.

I questioned the background of the UK use of "topping himself" e.g. for suicides.

Nov. 16 2011 01:54 PM
tony from brooklyn

I teach at a college in Queens, and all of my students pronounce 'mine' as 'mines', as in, "That pencil is mines."
Would such a poor mispronounciation ever make it into the dictionaries, if enough people start using it?

Nov. 16 2011 01:50 PM

Regarding Gogol'. In Russian it is "ispustil duh". In this context "duh" means "dusha" - soul - and the meaning of the expression - "the soul left the body".

"he gave up the ghost" is a very, very bad translation.

Nov. 16 2011 01:50 PM
Kate from Washington Heights

Excuse me, it was the Wycliffe edition that had "gave up the ghost", not the KJV

Matthew 27:50 Forsothe Jhesus eftsoone criede with a greet voyce, and yaf vp the goost.

Nov. 16 2011 01:49 PM

A Jamaican man once told me that he "put him in a dirt sleep".

Nov. 16 2011 01:49 PM
The Truth from Becky

"Sleeping with the fishes"

Nov. 16 2011 01:49 PM
William from Manhattan

Aren't the death euphemisms a form of what linguists call taboo deformation, where people find ways to avoid naming the thing that they fear because it may cause the feared thing to appear? (I.e, saying "honey stealer" so the bear doesn't come into your cave.)

Nov. 16 2011 01:48 PM
chris from brooklyn

I have seen the coinage "He's toast" attributed to Bill Murray (actually "She's toast") in Ghostbusters. Can anyone find an earlier source?

Nov. 16 2011 01:48 PM
The Truth from Becky

He/She's history!

Nov. 16 2011 01:47 PM
Kate from Washington Heights

Matthew 27:50

Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.

Nov. 16 2011 01:47 PM
Dan K from NYC

I thought "niche" was a German philosopher.

Nov. 16 2011 01:46 PM
David from NJ

His publicist coined the name, "The Velvet Fog," to describe his smooth style but he hated it (hecklers called him "The Velvet Frog").

Nov. 16 2011 01:46 PM
Kate from washington heights

Give up the ghost comes from KJV bible when Jesus was on the cross

Nov. 16 2011 01:44 PM
Rick in Westchester

Best I heard was from my daughter, about 6 at the time, was "getting cosy with the worms."

Nov. 16 2011 01:43 PM

A doctor friend of mine says that doctors have their own set of expressions for death, or approaching death. "Skimming the trees" means you might be heading for a dramatic, irreparable crash (but you also might be able to pull through). "Circling the drain" means that you're definitely on your way out. On first blush, these expressions seem a little callous. But then again, I don't have to see death every day.

Nov. 16 2011 01:42 PM
Sophia from Yonkers

Avoidance of the word death is often theological. Christ Jesus said " They that believe on me shall never see death." Since life is eternal right now it is not life after death it is eternal life now. We "pass" beyond the illusion mortality

Nov. 16 2011 01:42 PM
Simon Levenson from Manhattan

One of my favorites comes from a translation Gogol's, The Overcoat. It says "he gave up the ghost." Thanks as always.

Nov. 16 2011 01:42 PM
Morgan Powell from NYC

Ms. O'Conner,
Please, please, please let me know if can verify if, "Tennis anyone?" is an expression meaning, "Would you like to take a walk in the rain?"
I know it sounds absolutely ludicrous and I haven't been able to verify it again, but I am certain that I once saw this explanation in a book of expressions.
Thank you!

Nov. 16 2011 01:42 PM

One of my favorites comes from a translation Gogol's, The Overcoat. It says "he gave up the ghost." Thanks as always.

Nov. 16 2011 01:40 PM

Give up the ghost? Took a dirt nap?

Nov. 16 2011 01:40 PM

Is "passing away" a way of "humanizing" death?

Nov. 16 2011 01:39 PM
Catherine from Massapequa

I worked in a hospital emergency room for 9 years in the early 80's. There were two, like the military, no-euphemistic euphemisms that became popular. The O sign was someone who was out cold with their mouth open... in a coma that is, and the Q sign was after they "bought the farm". Both came from a novel that was popular then. Would you or Patricia know what book it was from. It was supposed to by very funny and I'd love to find out.

Gallows humor would describe these non-euphemisms which may be employed by military, but was sure what kept us able to cope with all the sad and terrible things we handled every day in the ER.


Nov. 16 2011 01:39 PM
charles grice from Manhattan

In the south (Louisiana), the expression was "loosed away upwards." Wonderfully gentle!

Nov. 16 2011 01:39 PM
Jeff in Midtown from New York City

What's the origin of "he bought it"?

On an unrelated point, what's the difference between, for example, "I thought that that car was going too fast." and "I thought that car was going too fast.", and which is preferred?

Nov. 16 2011 01:38 PM
Bob from NYC

on topic there a great monty python episode about the "dead parrot".

Nov. 16 2011 01:37 PM
gio from Brooklyn

I am a medical transcriber and I e-mailed a question to Ms. O'Conner about the usage of develop v. develops in a doctor's report and not only did she e-mail me back a response but a couple of days later e-mailed me again with a further explanation the proper usage. I am amazed by such a kindness. Thank you so much.

Nov. 16 2011 01:35 PM
Ken from Soho

We say "passed" or "passed away" rather than "died", because in actuality, the soul is immortal - we do not die. We simply pass on to another plane, later to return again in another guise.

Nov. 16 2011 01:34 PM
Sally from Brooklyn

This topic is relevant now as it relates to the words used to describe the behavior of Jerry Sandusky. Reports seem to use every other word except rape or sodomy. It is unpleasant to be sure, but not using the right language doesn't correctly relay the gravity and impact.

Nov. 16 2011 01:33 PM
Danielle Jensen

A notice in my building elevator included the statement -" We apologize for any inconvenience." Someone crossed out "any" and wrote "the". Which is correct and why?

Nov. 16 2011 01:31 PM
Mark from Westchester

My British colleague refers to dying as "dropping from the twig".

Nov. 16 2011 01:31 PM
Brian from Manhattan

Read this in a NYC letter on-line. "Sorry to hear Andy Rooney passed to a better place."

Nov. 16 2011 01:31 PM
David from West Hempstead

Media outlets are typically a lot more comfortable saying someone has "died" when that person is widely unpopular--Qadaffi is a recent example.

Nov. 16 2011 01:30 PM


Appears that it became very popular, especially with liberal critics (movies, plays). Always used in reference to .... humans, especially lower classes and their plight.

Nov. 16 2011 01:22 PM

From Monty Pyton's "Dead Parrot":

'E's not pinin'! 'E's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker!

'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed 'im to the perch 'e'd be pushing up the daisies!

'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig!

'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisibile!!


Nov. 16 2011 01:16 PM
Rhoda from Upper East Side

A TV reporter referred to a police officer who was injured as a "two-year veteran." Cops with twenty years service wouldn't think so. How can you be veteran with little experience?

Nov. 16 2011 12:45 PM
Gregory from The Bronx

“Kinda, sorta”

We have become a nation of language bimbos. “Kinda,” “sorta,” “like,” “basically,” prefacing every opening statement with “so…,” overdependence on common clichés such as “organic” and “at the end of the day” because people are too verbally weak to come up with a genuinely original expression of thought punctuates the laziness and ineptitude that has infected modern language. This extends even to professionals who presumably have received a college education. I actually heard not too long ago a judge in her courtroom use the expression “irregardless.” I frequently read blogs atrociously written by doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers and other professionals and am left wondering even if they do not have a basic grasp of grammar, vocabulary and spelling, why would they not use Spell Check? The saddest sample of those who are linguistically challenged comes from many of those who work in media: newspapers, television and, yes, radio. I am sorry to confess this but I must admit that there are times while listening to interviews that the pain to my ears is such, reminiscent of the “Is it safe?” scene in “Marathon Man,” that I have to shut the radio off. I teach English as a Second Language to adults and I also tutor young children, mostly disadvantaged and many disabled, and I have to say I get greater inspiration and hope from them than from most others out there.

Nov. 16 2011 12:00 PM
Joe Adams from Bergen County, NJ

This is the end of the line. Fell off the twig.
Went to the ----in the sky. Ballgame (short for ball game is over). Went to his just reward. Passed away. Passed on.
Passed. "His earthly race is over."- Roy
Acuff in "Wabash Cannonball". Fell asleep (Stanley Brothers in "Little Bessie")

Nov. 16 2011 09:05 AM

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