Let's go a little deeper this week when we talk about some of the ways that we avoid talking about death.
Visual Description: White woman with salt and pepper asymmetrical hair signs outside. There is a clear blue sky, a fence running at a diagonal behind her, and a small garden in the distance. There are no sounds from the video except for a background track of happy music.
Okay, it’s time for one more serious topic that has more euphemisms than I can count. One of my favorite examples of this comes from the British Comedy Troupe Monty Python. One infamous sketch of theirs is called the “Parrot Sketch”. One man basically says “you sold me a dead parrot, so I want my money back” and gets the reply that the bird is not dead. The customer can’t believe what he’s hearing and goes into a long tirade or various euphemisms for death to explain just how dead this parrot actually is. They do a long run of many of the ways that we can choose to talk about death.
“Shuffled off the mortal coil” is just one of the very sophisticated-sounding ways to talk about dying, to die, or to pass away. He rattles off quite a few examples of different ways to talk about the parrot being dead.
This got me thinking about what the Deaf community uses for these kinds of concepts and how to talk around them instead of about them directly. Some of the basic signs that I know for dying include, “to die”, indicate various people dying by location, and what we typically interpret as “passing away”. I’ve also seen some people with a more formal English background who may use “passed” and then fingerspell the word “away” for this concept. I can’t think of any others off hand. Do any of you in the Deaf community mind sharing any others you use with me?
There are plenty of well documented English examples out there. It’s typically to use phrases like “so and so passed” or “they passed away”. Some of these have a more narrow scope as well. If you are talking about an animal or a pet who is older and sick and/or suffering without a chance for recovering, we may say that the injection that is given to them that allows them to die peacefully is called “putting them to sleep”. And I get why we want to use phrases like this, especially when we are talking with young kids. Unfortunately, this may lead to kids misunderstanding what is actually happening to their pets. This is not unique to either hearing or deaf children. If they see a phrase like “put to sleep” they could think that since the dog goes to sleep, and then I go to sleep, but the dog never wakes up again does that mean that I will never wake up again either?!? They might not see the difference between the euphemism and the literal phrase. The euphemism that was designed to make it sound nicer, or more palatable, can actually cause more fear, anxiety, and panic along with other problems that come along with misunderstanding euphemisms.
Again, that phrase “put to sleep” is mostly used for pets, or animals more broadly when they receive an injection to help ease suffering and allow them to die peacefully.
In other cases, these words or phrases become more complicated with extended meanings. For instance, the phrase “kick the bucket” has been extended to the concept of a “bucket list” for what things you want to do or accomplish with your life before you die, i.e. “kick the bucket”. This covers everything you would like to do before you pass away, whether that is something way down the line, or if you know you don’t have much time left.
Another phrase we’ll sometimes use includes “up in heaven” for talking about what happens to your soul after you are dead and gone. Or, if you were to talk about what happens to the physical body and start focusing on funerals and burials we can use the phrase “six feet under”. It focused on a whole family who worked together to manage a mortuary from doing the hair and makeup to prepare the body for viewing in the casket, to burials, etc. They all worked in that field together. But sometimes we will extend basic phrases that are supposed to be nice and polite to have a more robust meaning. I’ve heard this next one typically from middle-aged males, who - when asked how they are doing - will respond with “well, I’m still 6 feet above ground, so that’s good” which basically means that they aren’t dead yet so life is okay. This means that they are using 6 feet underground, and 6 feet above ground to make the comparison of alive vs being dead. As long as I’m alive, then that’s just fine. Still living means still going about my business.
As fas as I can tell, it seems to happen most often with that group (middle-aged men) but if another group uses it that I don’t know about, please feel free to let me know if other groups use “6 feet above ground” to talk about still being alive.
In religious settings, we may use the phrase “they are no longer with us” to talk about someone who is deceased. If that means that they have “gone away” does that mean that they are still going to come back? If they go, can I go too? Children can misunderstand this kind of language too.
Even though the purpose of euphemisms is supposed to be nice, look nice, play nice - they can incidentally cause fear and anxiety through potential misconceptions. This causes the same problems for people who are learning English as a second language. By using so many euphemisms in English, we often confuse people who are learning our language as a second language. How easy would it be to confuse “not with us anymore” as a way of saying someone is in another town, instead of a fancy way of saying that they were dead instead?!? This is rife with possibilities for confusion.
One final example here is another phrase we use for after someone is dead and gone to say that they are “with the angels now”. This means the same thing as being “in heaven” or “with the angels”. Imagine how easy it is for children to misunderstand this too. “If they’re with the angels, I want to be with the angels too and have fun and go flying around in heaven” etc. However, saying “with the angels” is just a soft and sweet way to say that someone is no longer alive.
These were just some of my ideas for euphemisms, but I would love to see what you have to contribute to this discussion!! Thanks and see you next time!