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Euphemisms for Death

Wear wooden pajamas, to smell the flowers from below, popped their clogs, to swallow one's birth certificate, to eat dandelions by the roots, to leave one's teeth, to pull the leathers, to kick the calendar, to put the car away, to not eat mangoes next season, to turn at the corner...

These are just some of my favorite euphemisms for death I learned through yesterday's weekly conversation about death and dying on Twitter. Euphemisms for death was the topic for this week's chat hosted by advocate Nora Miller. (Symplur captured the transcript from our TweetChat if you're interested in reading it.)

The euphemisms above come from many different cultures; it appears a common experience the world over—death—also lends itself to a common desire to talk around it rather than directly about it. Part of what we discussed on Twitter was the effect of using euphemisms instead of saying death, dead, or dying during end-of-life conversations. Does it harm or help? Does it depend on who you're talking to? Does it have a societal impact for acceptance of and preparation for death?

Keep in mind, the community which gathers for these chats likely doesn't accurately represent a wide swath of our society. Many of us have intimately experienced the death of a loved one, work with people who are dying, or talk about death on a frequent basis. Through our experiences we've become much more direct when discussing death (and I suspect we all probably also have a tendency to be pretty plain speakers on most subjects).

That's certainly the case for me. I'm pretty direct and blunt in most conversations and I've only gotten more so when speaking about death since I began working for the Death with Dignity National Center. This has been a conscious effort for me.

Words can be used to shield us from acknowledging something we'd rather not think about, or distance us from something we don't like. Speaking in euphemisms about death and dying builds a wall to separate us from the reality of the situation.

By keeping the reality of death at arm's length, we're likely contributing to bigger societal issues like treating death as a taboo subject. During the chat Nora asked "Will word changes affect how we act?" and some of the responses hit on the larger impact of directly speaking about death:

"I hope if we can be honest about what we're facing ( it what it is!), then hopefully, we can better prepare."

"Using a direct, but not harsh way of speaking about death will make it less taboo in families, hospitals, and society as a whole. It will improve conversations and also improve end-of-life care because we're being honest about situation/prognosis, not tiptoeing around the subject."

"We need to remove the stigma about acknowledging death and dying. It hurts patients and families when we deny or avoid the truth. We lose the chance for goodbyes, quality of life, and good end-of-life care."

To make matters worse, euphemisms vary between cultures. If I avoid saying death, dead, or dying when talking to a person who isn't familiar with my area's idioms which describe death, the person likely would have no idea what I was talking about. Before I read the article about death euphemisms mentioned above, I would've been completely flummoxed if another person said, "my dad popped his clogs last week."

I wouldn't even know how to respond: "Oh my, were they spring-loaded?" or "Did his feet go through an unexpected growth spurt?" or "Your dad wears clogs?"

Nope, I find it's much better for society as a whole to face the situation head-on, and call it what it is with words translatable into any language.

Dead, muerto, hildako, mort, tot, marbh, död, morto, dood, wafu, dauður, ölü, mortis.

Posted on September 14, 2012


Posted by Pashta MaryMoon (not verified) on September 19, 2012 at 01:26 p.m.

This discussion is very important, especially since Canada (where I live) is a very multicultural culture. It would be very interesting if someone wrote an article addressing the underlying similarities and dissimilarities between ethnic or regional cultures in euphemisms, since I can image that many of them are quite similar just based on different environmental or cultural imagery -- or visa versa (not similar despite relatively similar imagery). On our CINDEA website, we attempt to not used euphemisms -- partially to change our cultural problem with using the terms 'death' and 'dying', but also to avoid implied judgment about the death/dying.

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