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Exit lines

Many ways to describe death
August 19, 2013

When people die, the words used to describe their passing vary greatly, often depending on how close the writer was to the dearly departed.

In paid obituaries or death notices, written by families or funeral homes, death is disguised: people “cross over” or “cross to the other side,” “are called home by their maker,” “went to their eternal rest,” and so on.

The euphemism that appears most often, of course, is “passed away,” the standard in paid obits. It shows up occasionally in news articles as well, almost always when the article is written in a sympathetic light: in a sports column remembering a successful coach who had his ticket punched five years earlier, for example, or in a profile of a World War II veteran whose wife, never named, “has since passed away,” or in articles discussing the death of an employee or executive of that news outlet.

“Pass away,” euphemistic though it is, is preferable to the more informal idioms that seem to have little to do with shuffling off this mortal coil.

But some of them do.

“Kick the bucket,” for example, first cited in 1785, may trace its derivation to suicides: Someone hanging himself would stand on a bucket, then kick it away. The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, sadly not updated since 1988, calls that explanation “more likely” than the one in The Oxford English Dictionary, which says “kick the bucket” “perhaps” rose from the word for a beam, or yoke. A slaughtered pig was suspended from this “bucket” by its heels, and thus would be “kicking the bucket.”

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As unpleasant as both of those derivations are, “kick the bucket” is usually used jocularly, about someone not close to the speaker, or by a meta speaker herself. More than 200 years later, in 2006, it gave rise to the “bucket list,” the list of things you want to do before you “kick the bucket.”

Or there’s “bought the farm.” Much more recent than “kick the bucket,” its origins are also disputed, though all have their basis in wartime. The O.E.D. notes that in 1938, someone who hit a telephone pole with a car and had to replace it was said to have “bought the pole.” It became “bought the farm” and related to death, The O.E.D. posits, because in wartime, a farmer whose land was damaged by a military plane crash would be entitled to a payment from the government. “Bought the farm,” The O.E.D. says, is said “(of a pilot or aeroplane) to crash fatally; (hence) to be killed; to die.”

Morris cites less violent origins, though still related to war: Drafted civilians talked of the “peace and tranquillity” they would find when they returned home and realized their dream of owning their own farm. If they died in the war, they found that peace and tranquillity, though not in the way they had expected. Or perhaps, Morris says, “bought the farm” was said ironically of someone who never had the chance to return home and fulfill that desire: “Well, he’s bought his farm.”

But if you’re tempted to use any of these soft-pedaled terms for death in ordinary news writing, let the temptation die.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.