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English is known for being a rich language that boasts an incredibly large vocabulary and contains countless synonyms. It’s also true that, over the years, we’ve developed a greater number of euphemisms for certain subject matters, topics or individual words. A euphemism is typically used to avoid offending or upsetting someone, or to avoid talking directly about an uncomfortable topic. A euphemism is then a milder version of the intended word, ‘downsizing’ meaning ‘cuts,’ or ‘let go’ meaning ‘fired.’
Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is the fascinating range of words and phrases the English language employs euphemistically for death and dying. Here we take a look at a few examples and contexts in which we use death euphemisms, and also discuss why people are always searching for new and glossier ways to talk about death.
In Formal Language
There are an incredible number of euphemisms for death that are used in formal situations, like at a funeral, in obituaries, polite conversation and among strangers. These can include passed away, deceased, departed, sleeping, slipped away, resting in peace, at rest, lost one’s life and taken one’s last breath. These turns of phrase allow us to avoid confronting the act of dying directly and are usually employed when we’re talking to someone who may have been affected by the death, or to a stranger.
In Colloquial Language
When it comes to informal language and slang in particular, there’s a huge variety of terms to choose from. Whether they’re used to soften the impact of a death, such as being six feet under, pegging out, meeting one’s maker, going to a better place and giving up the ghost, or to take a more direct approach, such as being curtains, taking a dirt nap or kicking the bucket, slang is responsible for a great number of euphemistic synonyms.
In Journalistic Language
As journalists are forced to write about death and dying on a regular basis, they’ve developed a number of euphemisms to help them talk about the issue. Some, like KIA (Killed In Action), are acronyms and technical terms employed by important organisations. Others are simply more formal or literary ways of conveying the information that someone has died. For instance, journalists may talk about a bereavement, an untimely demise, a personal loss or, simply, an end.
In Black Humour
Just as some people want to avoid tackling the issue of death and prefer to use euphemisms to skirt around the subject, others prefer to employ euphemisms in a humorous way and often use black humour to refer to death in a direct manner. Good examples of this type of euphemism might include being food for worms, pushing up daisies, popping one’s clogs or coming to a sticky end.
Different ways of dying
Finally, there are a variety of synonyms for death that are only used in certain contexts, situations or types of deaths. For instance, if someone is murdered, they may be sleeping with the fishes or wearing concrete shoes. If the person drowned, they may have gone to a watery grave. Similarly, if someone commits suicide they could have topped themselves, taken their own life or ended it all.
Why so many?
Although there’s no single answer to the question of why we have so many words and phrases for death and the process of dying, a number of factors may have contributed to their development. Perhaps most simply, the verb to die is useful but completely without nuance – it doesn’t provide us with any information apart from the fact that someone is no longer living.
Many of the euphemisms listed above provide us with a little more detail about what may have occurred or the relationship between the speaker and the deceased. It’s also worth noting that culturally we still have issues with talking about death openly and honestly – a fact that may go a long way to explaining why we’ve created so many new terms for the process. Finally, the idea that death makes us uncomfortable personally, and that we don’t like to talk about it for selfish reasons, could be a powerful factor driving our desire to speak e
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Last week the BBC ran a program called A Time To Live. A wonderfully touching display of death positivity that’s at times bitterly heart-wrenching, and at others hilarious; it’s a program well worth watching, reminding us that there can be beauty and dignity in death and end of life.
A Time To Live explores the stories of 12 individuals, all of whom have been diagnosed with a terminal condition that severely limits the time that they have left with family and friends. Ranging from twenty years old to seventy, the interviewees are diverse and unique, each providing the viewer with a completely different context, circumstance and way of processing the information they are forced to contend with. It provides a positive voice while answering the valuable question: ‘what do you learn about life, when you’re facing death?’
Bookending an hour-long exploration of what it means to live with a terminal illness, film maker and narrator Sue Bourne twice makes the suggestion that her film isn’t about dying at all, and is in fact primarily concerned with living. Although death plays a major role in the documentary, it’s a testament to those involved, both interviewer and interviewee, that her assertion rings true.
Watching A Time to Live, we reflected on how as human beings, we will respond to news of our imminent death in an almost infinite number of ways. Whereas our first interviewee, Fi, decided to return to work after her diagnosis, determined not to let her illness dictate how she lived the last months of her life, others retire early to spend time with their family, take time off to travel the world or turn to long distance running.
Bourne is careful not to make any moral judgement about the decisions taken by the 12 participants and though the viewer is sometimes left feeling as though a particular individual’s response to the situation would be at odds with their own, each is presented in an understanding and sympathetic manner that leaves you stunned at how consistently humans respond to adversity with strength and dignity. The interviews are so dextrously handled that the program never feels voyeuristic, rather you are made to feel as though you have been invited into the front room of the subject.
Many of the interviewees also offer a unique insight into some of the lesser discussed issues surrounding untimely death. There are segments concerned with topics like dying with regrets and the desire to make things right, with planning for the future of a family, with how you measure the worth of a life, and with how you choose to spend the remainder of your time.
Throughout it all, the intensity of being confronted by one’s own mortality is a recurrent theme. For some, it’s the catalyst for drastic change, for others, it renders the world more significant and detailed, with every moment to be savoured. For everyone involved, it appears to require a radical reappraisal of what we think we know and the way in which we approach life.
Discussing the subject with 12 participants highlights how necessarily different our coping mechanisms must be. A young twenty-something who hasn’t had a long life cannot process their mortality in the same way as a seventy-year-old who feels that they’ve made the most of their many years. Likewise, someone without children will have to deal with a very different type of grief and pain when compared to someone with a young family. For some, faith provides a framework through which to understand their situation, while for others friendship or companionship prove invaluable.
A Time to Live is a thoughtful and insightful exploration of how people continue to live and struggle, despite the end being close at hand. Some watching might find the program’s honest display of humour, sadness, joy, fear, positivity and strength to be a testing rollercoaster of emotions, but these will, by the end, all be surpassed by an overriding sense of awe at how capable human beings are of facing extreme hardship head on. With A Time To Live, Bourne has created a television show that provides us with an opportunity to understand what other people are feeling and coping with at the end of their lives, while also forcing us to take a long, hard look at our own attitudes towards life and death.
From all of us here at Beyond, we’d like to offer our best wishes to the 12 individuals depicted and their families.
A Time To Live is available on BBC iplayer until June 16th .
If you are nearing the end of your life, you may wish to consider a funeral plan . This can ease the financial burden of a funeral, while also ensuring that your funeral will be as you want it to be.
William Shakespeare is probably the most famous English writer in history, responsible for penning many of the most well-known poems, sonnets and plays in the English language. His writing continues to be appreciated some 400 years after his death. Though the true date of his birth remains a mystery, it is assumed to have been close to 23 April, the very same day on which he died. Shakespeare was perhaps best known for his dramas, which as one might expect are full of tragic deaths. By way of a celebration of his life and works, we’ve compiled a list of ten of his best quotes on death.
- ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths.’ – Julius Caesar
As part of one of the most famous quotes in Julius Caesar, ‘cowards die many times’ makes a comparison between the many small, personal ‘deaths’ a coward faces every time they shy away from a challenge and the one pure and true physical death that the valiant experience in the heat of battle.
- ‘The worst is death, and death will have his day.’ – King Richard II
Shakespeare often personified death and this is one of the most famous examples of him doing so. As Richard II hears that he has no soldiers to fight Henry, he immediately collapses into woe and despair, giving the audience a true indication of what kind of a king he is.
- ‘Death lies on her like an untimely frost.’ – Romeo & Juliet
Though Shakespeare often gave us profound insights into the effects or consequences of death, he was also well-known for his beautiful descriptions. This is the perfect example of such a description, with so much information and detail squeezed into a succinct and visceral phrasing.
- ‘Why, thou owest god a death.’ – Henry IV, Part I
This short quote is the introduction to one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies. It is followed by a long speech by the character Falstaff, who, contrary to the opinion of the character that speaks this quote, rallies against the futility of dying for an abstract ideal like honour.
- ‘Tired with all these, for restful death I cry.’ – Sonnet 66
This line begins Sonnet 66, a poem devoted to the problems and inequities in Shakespeare’s time. In it, he adopts a world-weary tone that suggests he is tired with the inequality, untrustworthiness and treachery of his time and muses that death may be the only solution to his woes.
- ‘To die, to sleep – To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub, for in this sleep of death what dreams may come.’ – Hamlet
In this quote, Hamlet is talking to himself, questioning whether it is better to die than to face his complex difficulties head on. However, he’s concerned that even in death, he will not be free from the dreams and the earthly problems that haunt him in life.
- ‘So wise so young, they say, do never live long.’ – Richard III
As Richard III is a play about a man of questionable mental clarity murdering his own brother in order to become king, it’s no surprise that there’s a number of interesting quotes about death among its lines. This quote advises that young and clever men need be wary because the old will always consider them a threat.
- ‘By medicine life may be prolonged, yet death will seize the doctor too.’ – Cymbeline
Cymbeline may not be one of Shakespeare’s most well-known works, but that doesn’t mean it has nothing profound or interesting to say to the modern reader. This quote comes in Act 5, Scene 5 and discusses the inevitability of death. Though a doctor may prolong life, eventually even they will pass away and nothing will stand in the way of death.
- ‘But now two mirrors of his princely semblance, are crack’d in pieces by malignant Death.’ – Richard III
This quote is spoken by the Duchess of York and relates to her two sons. Learning of the King’s death, the Duchess grieves the loss and laments the way death has corrupted both of her boys.
- ‘Ay, but to die, and go we know not where.’ – Measure for Measure
Another one of Shakespeare’s less remembered works, Measure for Measure talks a great deal about death. This quote discusses the uncertainty surrounding death and our inability to ever know exactly what lies the other side of life.