Good Words for Real Meanings

In A Room With a View, in the dining room at the Italian pensione in Florence, we find a collection of refined English ladies subjected to the direct and what were considered crude locutions of George’s father who has the temerity to say the word ‘stomach’ in mixed company. He horrifies the ladies by doing so. He should have said something more gentle about digestion if he wanted to warn against drinking lemonade, rather than saying how hard the beverage is on the stomach. Body parts were never to be mentioned in polite company.

Euphemisms, nicer words for not-so-nice words, flourished in that age of delicate manners, and continued on into and through much of the 20th century. Early TV ads had us buying ‘bathroom tissue’ for years, and many of those ads never showed the product in situ on its nearby roller for fear we might get too graphic a mental picture of the “bathroom tissue’s” end, if you’ll pardon the pun. Now ads for toilet paper show bears in the woods using it for its intended purposes, leaving no doubt as to what we are to do with it as well, and drawing on the old question about what bears do in the woods.

Preparation H went through a number of euphemistic ad campaigns, one of which introduced a nicely dressed woman standing in her library and saying, “Aren’t you glad we live in an age when health issues can be openly discussed?” whereupon she did everything except discuss what Preparation H was designed to relieve. I used to love seeing her, and finally wrote to the company with my solution to their obvious dilemma about how to get the message across. I submitted what I considered the slogan they so desperately needed: “Use Preparation H and kiss your hemorrhoids goodbye.” I thought this a stroke of genius; Bristol-Myers never wrote back to congratulate me on inventing this solution to their sales campaign problem.

Nowadays, most euphemisms and anything that wants to hide what’s really meant or said or portrayed have largely disappeared. For instance, CSI shows on TV that take us to the morgue and show us the grisly remains of victims undergoing autopsy right before our eyes have erased any doubts we might have had about what happens to the human body after it dies, especially if it does so under suspicious circumstances. Yet we persist in talking about death in euphemistic terms by using the verb phrase “passed away” in place of “died”. This phrase probably originated in Victorian times when so many other terms for the natural and inescapable occasions of human life were considered unpleasant, distasteful, even vulgar. You didn’t say ‘pregnant’ back then, either; you said “expecting”, and if you were “expecting” you went into “confinement” while you had that big bump in front. To display that big bump in public was to proclaim what you’d been up to in order to get it, an act always considered shameful.

Nobody thinks twice about public displays of pregnancy these days, thank God, but we still want to diminish the reality of death by saying “passed away”. Sometimes, we only hear “passed” without the “away” part. When I hear someone say, “Yes, poor Mrs. Defunct has passed,” a number of questionable and possible endings to the phrase come to mind:

Passed the car in the next lane?

Passed out?

Passed her arithmetic test?

Passed gas?

Passed up a second helping of potatoes?

Passed the meat platter around the table?

Passed muster?

I am not sure why we continue using “passed away” or “passed” when we mean “died”. Perhaps we hope to soften the blow of the actual event, but if so, for whom? Perhaps it is a kind of denial that we will one day all experience the same event (now there’s a euphemistic phrase, isn’t it?) and we don’t want to be reminded of our own death. Or maybe we think it just sounds better, maybe nicer, to say “passed away” instead of “died”

It certainly isn’t biblical or canonical to do so. How would this be in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer as we proclaim the mystery of faith?

“Christ has passed away. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”

Nope, doesn’t work. We believe that Christ did indeed die. Period. A necessary act for the two sentences that follow it.

Other expressions do occur in scripture, like “he gave up his spirit” (John) or “breathed his last” (Matthew, Mark, Luke) when Jesus died on the cross, but nothing like “passed away”. Neither do we find anything about “passing away” in any of the burial rites and anthems in the Book of Common Prayer.

Thus the expression “passing away” is merely a feeble attempt to soften the blow, to make a possibly sad event prettier, to mitigate the inevitable through ineffectual euphemism, as if dying were somehow shameful and should be hid from our consciousness, as if saying it another way makes dying less real.

When they take me out of here on a gurney, lifeless and getting stiff, I hope that whoever is on hand will report simply that, yep, that’s Robert. He died.

–Robert Heylmun

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