Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Passing Away or Kicking the Bucket? The Lexicon of Dying

Death has been in the news lately, with the passing of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il and former Czech president Vaclav Havel within hours of each other. Despite the very different legacies of the two world leaders, most English-language news outlets used the same wording to describe their deaths: in obituaries, both Kim and Havel simply died. But English, like many other world languages, has a rich vocabulary of terms for dying, from the blunt to the euphemistic.

When Kim Jong-Il's death was announced by state-run North Korean media, the regional coverage revealed some differing approaches to the description of dying in East Asian languages. As the University of Pennsylvania linguist Victor Mair explained in a post on Language Log (where I also contribute), media outlets in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan handled the news with different terminology. In Taiwan, the terms used were rather polite: instead of saying Kim "died" ( 死), Taiwanese media said he "departed from this world" (qùshì 去世), "passed away due to illness" (bìngshì 病逝 ), or "suddenly passed away" (cù shì 猝逝). Japanese media used a few variations on the basic root word for dying (shi 死), while South Koreans were forthright, avoiding the polite expression "pass away" (sŏgŏ 서거) that would have been appropriate for one of their own esteemed leaders.

In any language, it seems, the lexicon of death will be tremendously nuanced. It's a subject that lends itself to euphemization or softening, but also to earthy idioms that might defuse some of the anxieties surrounding death. There is a long tradition in English-language humor of exploiting the many varied expressions for dying, from the solemn to the slangy. We could start with Mark Twain, who included a vignette in his 1872 book Roughing It recounting a conversation between a "stalwart rough" in Nevada and a well-spoken clergyman:

"You see, one of the boys has gone up the flume—"
"Gone where?"
"Up the flume—throwed up the sponge, you understand."
"Thrown up the sponge?"
"Yes—kicked the bucket—"
"Ah—has departed to that mysterious country from whose bourne no traveler returns."
"Return! I reckon not. Why pard, he's dead!"

The juxtaposition of coarse, unsentimental expressions like "kicked the bucket" and the clergyman's flowery alternative wonderfully demonstrates that simple talk of "dying" can be avoided by language both high and low. Nearly a century later, in 1969, Monty Python's Flying Circus aired their famous "dead parrot" sketch (transcript, video), which includes this unforgettable rant by John Cleese as a frustrated customer who has bought a dead-on-arrival parrot from a pet shop:

'E's not pinin'! 'E's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed 'im to the perch 'e'd be pushing up the daisies! 'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig! 'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisibile!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!

Later, in the 1980s, Johnny Carson carried this morbid absurdism even further in his "Tonight Show" sketch, "Funeral for a Thesaurus Editor" (an obvious favorite around here!):

A sampling of Carson's synonym-crazy eulogy:

But Joe did a great job in those twenty years, and that's why I'm so sorry that he's passed away. But he's in a happier place. He's among the angels. Joe's bought the farm, he's cashed in his chips, kicked the bucket. He's been deep-sixed. He's doing the lawn limbo right now. Time-sharing the oblong condo. He's making a call from the horizontal phone booth. He's deceased, departed, hard as a carp. He's in the marble mailbox. He's booked into the Motel Deep Six. Taking a spin in the brass-handled sedan. I wish he hadn't left us. I wish he wasn't far, far away, trolling for top-soil trout. Dead as doornail, gone out with the tide. Taking the final curtain, serving a major in the pine penalty box. Standing in line at the Sod Sizzler, dancing the hokey-croaky... [etc.]

Substitute terms for dying, be they highbrow euphemisms or lowbrow dysphemisms, don't have a place in straight reporting, so that's why both Kim Jong-Il and Vaclav Havel were said to have simply died in most English-language reports. Even the lightest of euphemisms for death, passing away, is frowned upon by journalists reporting on deaths in the news. As one commenter on Victor Mair's Language Log post wrote:

One of the first things we teach to journalism students in the USA is to use "died" instead of "passed away" or "departed this life," which is how most people can tell the difference between an obituary written by the funeral director and one written by a newspaper staff member.

"Even in American English," he added, "it seems nearly disrespectful to go to such lengths to avoid saying the obvious."

(By the way, if you're wondering where the colorful expression "kick the bucket" comes from, it probably doesn't have anything to do with what we now think of as a bucket. As David Wilton explains on Wordorigins.org, the most likely story has to do with an older sense of bucket referring to a beam or yoke used for hanging things — in this case, "an animal being hung up for slaughter, kicking the beam from which it is suspended in its death throes." So now you know.)

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.