Oct 6, 2009

On the Language of Death: Tiptoing through the Tulips

3 Comments · Posted by Robert Ambrogi in General

Back when I was a young journalism student, I handed in a story that said someone had “passed away.” My journalism professor nearly … well … killed me. “Pass away,” he bellowed, “is a weak euphemism used by those who let their discomfort with death get in the way of their reporting on it.”

“Not only that,” I remember him going on, “but ‘pass away’ suggests a transition to another place, a place that we, as journalists, are not able to confirm exists.”

Although I paraphrase, he and I really did have such an exchange. I think of it often these days because I have noticed that journalists — particularly broadcast journalists, and prominent ones at that — seem increasingly uncomfortable with saying that someone has died. Instead, they report that someone has passed away or, simply, has passed. I have even heard it used with reference to animals. Listen to the network news tonight, to NPR, or to your local news program. The epidemic use of passing away is killing off dying.

The other usage I see way too often is that someone died “unexpectedly.” Here comes that long-ago professor’s voice blasting to the surface of my memory: “While you can be certain that everyone will die, you have no way of knowing when a person will die — unless you are god. Thus, no death can be ‘expected’ and every death is ‘unexpected.’ To say so is to be redundant.”

What does this have to do with lawyers? Well, maybe I expect greater precision in language from journalists than from lawyers. But those in both professions are well advised to avoid euphemisms and call a spade a spade — even if the spade is in the hands of a gravedigger.

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3 comments

  • Anonymous · October 7, 2009 at 11:34 am

    I applaud your exhortation for precision and efficiency in use of language, and I agree all deaths are unexpected. Having recently experienced the necessity of communicating news of the death by a heart attack of a healthy young family member, however, I assure you that describing it as a "sudden and unexpected death" felt appropriately descriptive and was helpful – e.g., it averted many questions ("Was he sick?" etc.)

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  • Steve Daily · October 7, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Interesting point, Robert, but I'd wager that getting fired brings out an even greater variety of euphemisms. I personally don't think there is anything wrong with euphemisms, so long as ones' intentions are honest and the meaning is clear. Softening language about traumatic events is a way of showing sensitivity toward the subject or their families.

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  • Stuart Ritchie · October 8, 2009 at 8:16 am

    "Well, maybe I expect greater precision in language from journalists than from lawyers."

    Really, Robert??! I hope you're wrong… but I fear you're right.

    "But those in both professions are well advised to avoid euphemisms and call a spade a spade — even if the spade is in the hands of a gravedigger."

    So I guess you aesthetically prefer, as I do, the otherwise rather blunt name for dead people used in Scottish litigation – "defunct" – to the English version – "deceased"?

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