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Richard Smith and Nataly Kelly: Global attempts to avoid talking directly about death and dying

16 Aug, 12 | by BMJ Group

Richard Smith
English speakers have been very inventive in finding words and phrases that allow them to avoid the words death and dying, and so we have discovered are people who speak other languages. This seems to be a global phenomenon. We are the kind of people who when we hear somebody say “X has passed away” want to shout “No X didn’t, X died.” But that’s intolerant, and we want here to praise the global talent for avoiding the dreaded words.

We were started on our journey by the survey this year of British attitudes to death and dying by the Dying Matters Coalition. They surveyed 2000 members of the public and 1000 GPs and found that two thirds of people do not feel comfortable talking  to somebody who has a friend or family member who has died. A quarter do not know what to say, and 28% talk about a death only if the bereaved person mentions it first. Yet half of people agree that “If we felt more comfortable talking about dying and death, people would be less likely to die alone.”

Almost nine out of 10 GPs agreed that “If people in Britain felt more comfortable discussing dying, death and bereavement, it would be easier to have our end of life wishes met.” Eight out of ten agreed that “People in Britain are uncomfortable discussing dying, death and bereavement.” Perhaps because of this discomfort (but almost unbelievably) a third of GPs have never initiated a conversation with a patient about their end of life wishes. Two thirds of GPs haven’t talked to anybody about their own end of life wishes, and nine out of 10 don’t have any form of living will.

The survey asked people if they had ever used words or phrases to avoid using the words death or dying to a bereaved person, and this is where the inventiveness begins. These are the answers with the percentages using them:

passed away (57%)
deceased (23%)
kicked the bucket (20%)
passed on (18%)
gone to a better place (17%)
popped their clogs (17%)
departed (14%)
six feet under (12%)
brown bread ( 10%)
pegged it (9%)
croaked (8%)
met their maker (6%)
fallen off their perch (4%)
turned their toes up (2%)
cashed in their chips (2%)
sleeping the big sleep (1%)

Some 5% of people had come up with still other words and phrases, which we weren’t able to track down. Our first thought was that it was hard to imagine that you would avoid upsetting a widow by saying: “I’m sorry, Mrs, to hear that your husband is brown bread,” or “croaked” or “cashed in his chips.” Some of these words and phrases are clearly gentle euphemisms (passed away, gone to a better place) but some seem rougher than death and dying with clear references to corpses (six feet under, turned their toes up). Despite the British reluctance to talk about death and dying most of these words and phrases would be instantly identifiable to most Brits—even the rhyming slang “brown bread.”

Inspired by the British survey, one of us (NK) who is deeply interested in translation and about to publish a book on the subject asked professional translators  to share words and phrases used in other languages along with their literal  translations in English. Imagine the challenge of translating for a Spanish speaking doctor a British patient saying “My wife’s brown bread.” Here’s the collection:

Afrikaans:
Bokveld toe—going to the goatfield
Die lepel in die dak steek—jabbing the spoon into the ceiling
Die emmer skop—to kick the bucket
Die tydelike met die ewige verwissel—exchanging the temporary for the everlasting

Danish:
Stille træskoene—to leave one’s clogs behind

Dutch:
De pijp uitgaan—to go out of the pipe
De madeliefjes van onderen bekijken—to look at the daisies from below
Het hoekje omgaan—to turn a corner
Het tijdelijke met het eeuwige verwisselen—to exchange the temporal for the eternal

French:
Avaler son extrait de naissance—to swallow one’s birth certificate
Casser sa pipe—to break one’s pipe
Manger les pissenlits par la racine—to eat dandelions by the roots
Passer l’arme à gauche—to pass one’s weapon on one’s left side
Rendre l’âme—to give one’s soul back

German:
Das Gras/die Radieschen) von unten betrachten—to look at the grass/the radishes from below
Das Zeitliche segnen—to bless the time
De Schirm zue tue—to close the umbrella (Swiss German)
Den Löffel abgeben—to pass on the spoon
In die ewigen Jagdgründe gehen—to go to the eternal hunting grounds
Ins Gras beißen—to bite the grass

Greek:
τίναξε τα πέταλα—to cast the petals

Hebrew:
מריח את הפרחים מלמטה—to smell the flowers from below
ירד דומה—descend to the afterworld / Dumah or Dumah descended (guardian angel of the dead in Talmudic folklore).
שכבה עם אבותיה—lying with their ancestors
החזיר נשמתו לבוראו—his soul has returned to his maker

Hungarian:
Alulról szagolja az ibolyát—to smell the violets from below
Beadja a kulcsot—to hand in the key
Bedobja a törülközőt—to throw in the towel
Befejezi földi pályafutását—to finish one’s worldly career
Csókot vált a halállal—to exchange kisses with death
Eltávozik az örök vadászmezőkre—to leave for the eternal hunting fields
Elviszi a kaszás—to be taken by the grim reaper
Feldobja a talpát/bakancsát—to kick one’s feet/boots up in the air
Felfordul—to turn belly-up
Fűbe harap—to bite the grass
Itthagyja az árnyékvilágot—to leave this shadow world
Jobblétre szenderül—to fall asleep to a better life
Kileheli a lelkét—to exhale one’s soul
Magához szólítja az úr—to be summoned by the Lord
Örök álomba merül—to fall into an eternal dream
Otthagyja a fogát—to leave one’s teeth
Visszaadja a lelkét a Teremtőnek—to return one’s soul to the Maker

Irish:
Ba lá maith dhó é—it was a good day for him
Go ndéana Dia grásta/ trócaire air—may God be merciful (said after mentioning somebody who has died)
Imithe ar shlí na fírinne—gone on the path of truth

Italian:
Cadere stecchito—to drop dead (stecchito, from stecco or stick, refers to the stiffness of a dead body)
Svegliarsi sotto a un cipresso—to wake up under a cypress
Stirare le zampe—to stretch (out) one’s legs/paws
Tirare le cuoia—to pull the leathers

Spanish:
Cantar el Manisero—to sing El Manisero (El Manisero is a song, and the title literally means “the peanut vendor”) (Cuban Spanish)
Criar malvas—to grow daisies
Darle la patá (patada) a la lata—to kick the can (Cuban Spanish)
Estirar la pata—to stretch your leg
Guardar el carro—to put the car away (Cuban Spanish)
Irse al 1900—to go to 1900 (only in the municipality of Regla, after the year of foundation of the cemetery that appears on the façade) (Cuban Spanish)
Irse de gira—to go on a tour, especially for artists (Argentine Spanish)
Pasar a mejor vida—to pass to a better life
Mudarse al reparto Bocarriba—moving to a face up neighbourhood—that is, the graveyard (Cuban Spanish)

Polish:
Kopnąć w kalendarz—to kick the calendar
Powiększył grono aniołków—joined the host of little angels (about a child’s death)
Wąchać kwiatki od spodu—to smell flowers from below
Wyciągnąć nogi (wyciągnąć kopyta)—to stretch your legs (or hooves)

Portuguese:
Bater as botas—to beat the boots one against the other
Dormir para sempre—to sleep forever
Encontrar Deus—to meet God
Esticar o pernil—to stretch the leg
Impacotar—to get packed*
Ir fazer tijolo—to produce bricks
Ir desta para melhor—to go from this one to a better one
Ir para o andar de cima—to go upstairs
Ir para os anjinhos—to go to the little angels
Não comer manga na próxima estação—to not eat mangos next season
Partir para uma vida melhor—to start a better life
Vestir pijama de madeira—to wear wooden pajamas

Russian:
откинуть копыта  (ot’kinut ko’pyta)—to cast away one’s hooves

Romanian:
A da coltul—to turn at the corner
A da ortu popii—to pay the “ort” to the priest (Ort is a coin/currency paid to the priest who gave the church service at a funeral)

Perhaps the first thing to strike an English speaker is that the foreign phrases seem more poetic. That is perhaps because they are fresh; they are not familiar clichés, although they presumably are to those who speak the languages. The religious component is stronger in some languages—for example, Irish—reflecting that Britain is a post-religious society. Lying under the flowers, radishes, or dandelions seems common in many languages, and for some reason “pushing up the daisies” didn’t make it into the English list. Stretching and turning up your toes, paws, or hooves is common, perhaps suggesting that humans have more in common with animals than we might like to think – at least, in death.

Cuban Spanish perhaps takes the prize for the most colourful, and mudarse al reparto Bocarriba (moving to a face up neighbourhood—that is, the graveyard) makes us laugh. The Irish language offers the most positive outlook on death, and ba lá maith dhó é (it was a good day for him) is our favourite phrase. However, a national survey in Ireland—primarily of people with English as their mother tongue—revealed difficulties dealing with death that are similar to the British survey findings.

Just as in English not all of these words and phrases are euphemisms. They are alternate ways of referring to death, but the word death in each culture does not necessarily have the negative connotations it has in English. Not all of these phrases deliver the same effect—some could be offensive, some are respectful, others are light-hearted.

Why should doctors care about any of this? They should be aware that views of death vary drastically from one culture to another. In some cultures, it is horrific for a family member to hear something like “he has 2 or 3 months to live.” To say this is akin to tempting fate, being blasphemous, or simply stating something unspeakable. (This is a common view in some Asian, African, and Native American cultures.)

A very common thing interpreters deal with when interpreting for Western doctors is when a doctor explains the risks of a certain procedure. If death is on the list of risks, some patients will go into a panic when hearing about it. In some cases, they will actually say, “Why is the doctor telling me this? Does s/he want me to die?” It’s as if talking about it is wishing it upon the patient. In some cases, they feel that if the doctor is “good,” they will simply focus on the more likely outcomes, not occupy their minds with the minute chance of a negative one.

In many Western countries doctors are legally obliged or expected to disclose all risks of surgery to patients both verbally and in writing in order to ensure they understand the risks. However, in many countries of foreign patients, the opposite is true and it is taboo to discuss the risks. Translation is not just a matter of words but also of cultures.

We hope that readers who speak different languages and come from different cultures will add to our list by submitting comments below. We will be particularly grateful for examples from African, Asian, and indigenous languages.

We thank the many translators who have contributed to this collection.

* As has been pointed out by people in the comments to this blog. “Impacotar” should read “empacotar.”

Competing interest: NK is the chief research officer at Common Sense Advisory, an independent market research firm dedicated to language services and technology. Her book, Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World, will be published by Perigee/Penguin USA in October.

Nataly Kelly is the chief research officer at Common Sense Advisory, an independent research firm that focuses on language services and business globalization. Her latest book is Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World (Perigee/Penguin USA).

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.

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  • http://twitter.com/Hengky_Chiok Hengky Chiok

    Here are some in Indonesian:

    berpulang – has gone home
    meninggal(kan) dunia – has left this world
    mendahului – has gone ahead [of us]
    menutup mata – has closed his/her eyes
    menghembuskan nafas terakhir – has breathed his/her last
    tutup usia – closed his/her age

    Hengky
    http://www.indolingua.net

  • Alben Sigamani

    English meaning Passed away
    Malayalam – Andharichu Kannada – theerhodharu
    Tamil – yerindhitango
    Hindi – gujar gayi

  • Peter Davies

    The Scots get around this nicely with their classic phrase, “Ach, he’s done.” This implies some sort of terminal, and untreatable, lassitude. A little while later and they’re away.

  • kidmugsy

    “pegged it”? Surely you mean “pegged out”?

  • Ben Jones

    Another English phrase (just British perhaps?): pushing up the roses – similar to 6 foot under. I have heard that in genteel houses, pets used to be buried in the rose garden, FWIW.

    A common Japanese euphemism is 他界 = [gone to the] other world, although there are plenty of ordinary words for dying too (死亡、死去、死ぬ etc.) depending on the degree of formality required. Others include 事切れる (‘things run out’) or 成仏 (‘to become a Buddha’).

    Another feature of Japanese is the special terms used only for the death of the Emperor (in theory they could be used for other members of the Imperial Family), such as 崩御 or お隠れになる, which is a very polite way of saying ‘to become hidden’ (originally ‘… in the clouds’).

    The Chinese Book of Rites specified different death words for all ranks of society: 崩 for the emperor, 薨 for nobles, 卒 for gentry, 不禄 for governors and 死 for commoners.

    Japanese and Chinese have many well-known linguistic taboos connected with death, e.g. the number 4 is often avoided because it sounds similar to the most common word for death.

  • Richard Smith

    As
    were short on words and phrases from Asia and Africa I asked friends
    from those continents to contribute.

    Here
    is a contribution fro Professor
    D Prabhakaran,
    a Tamil speaker and executive
    director of the Centre
    for Chronic Disease Control
    and professor of chronic disease epidemiology, Public Health
    Foundation of India

    In
    Tamil two phrases are common:

    “Integrated
    into a period” and “disappeared.

    I
    also found three words commonly used to denote death with explanation
    from Google search

    In Tamil there are three words for ‘death’. They are 1) irappu 2)
    chavu 3) maranam.

    1)Irappu

    In the view of Tamils, life begins with conception; the conceived
    embryo is called karu (pronounced like current+voodoo) which takes
    form ie body ,called vuru (wooden+ruthless). Vuru+Vuyir (no English
    word to correctly represent vuyir:nearest approximation is life) leads
    to pirappu-coming into the world with life.Now, it follows that irappu
    is departing from the world, shedding life.Pirappu is taking form with
    life; irappu is losing form shedding life.Tamils had a scientific
    thinking in such matters and even vowels are called vuyir letters and
    consonants mei letters (Body letters).A mei letter can live by a vowel
    ie vuyir letter only!Incidentally Irappu is a noun only.

    2)Chavu

    The term chavu refers to the state of no life.It is opposed to the
    state of life.There is a saying in Tamil Chettha pambai adippathu pola
    which means Its like killing a dead snake.The actual implication of
    the word chettha (which is a past participle of chavu ) is more than
    just dead.It implies the absence of all attributes of active life.This
    term is also used with reference to non-human living things like
    animals,snakes, insects etc(The word maranam is never used for
    non-human references).The opposite of chavu isvazhvu which roughly
    means life in English.However this term vazhvu is used for both human
    and non-human lives.

    3)Maranam

    Maranam is the event of death.As mentioned earlier this term is used
    only for human beings. This term is a noun but can be used as an
    adjective by just trimming the last sound.For eg: marana seithi means
    death news .Maranam adaindhan means he died.

  • Chris Zielinski

    There is of course a fine little catalogue of such euphemisms in Monty Python’s Dead Parrot Sketch – including “shuffled off the mortal coil” (which is from Henry James, I believe). You might want to check on American versions/variants, such as “Gone to meet his Maker”…

  • http://twitter.com/mellojonny Jonathon Tomlinson

    Working in Hackney and having worked in Afghanistan, India and Nepal, I think it’s important to recognise not only how cultural mores vary, but how unexpected attitudes can be. Cultures and cultural values are increasingly overlapping, integrating and changing. From my perspective as a GP, each patient’s values need to be respectfully explored becasue we can no longer assume that people share the values of their (usually highly politicised and patriarchal) traditional culture.

  • bishwa

    in nepali:paralok hunubhayo

  • Chandra Sekar

    In Hindi
    “Dehanta” – death
    “Jeevan Mukti” – liberation from life
    “Brhama Nivas” – God’s place

  • http://twitter.com/gpsachs gp sachs

    Typo alert for Portuguese: “Impacotar” should be “Empacotar”

  • Kieran

    Hi Richard,

    Another Irish one: “Ni bheidh a leitheid ann aris”. It means “we wont see his likes again”. Can be used in a range of different circumstances.

    BW,

    Kieran,

    Dr Kieran Walsh

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.gillies.35 John Gillies

    the phrase I heard a lot in rural Galloway, before and after death, was ‘there’s nae betterment fur him/ her’. An acknowledgement that death was inevitable and , maybe, a good thing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.gillies.35 John Gillies

    more generally, of course, the reason why we use euphemisms to talk about death and dying is because , as human beings, we need them…..

  • http://twitter.com/mylastsong My Last Song
  • http://twitter.com/mylastsong My Last Song

    Richard might also like to know brother Arthur’s five farewell songs.
    http://www.mylastsong.com/advice/4658/159/115/music/fave-five-last-songs/joni-mitchell-river

  • Heather Henry

    Hello from @CALLManchester – we are a Greater Manchester charity offering emotional suport to people with life-limiting illness.
    We agree that avoiding talking about death is a key issue. We know that loved ones often cannot face talking about life limiting illness and death with either sufferers of the bereaved.This leaves people very isolated and depressed on top of what they have to cope with.
    So do yourselves a favour, screw up your courage and speak to that friend of yours who has cancer or your sister who has lost her husband. Don’t pass by on the other side. Frankly our clients dont care what terminology is used – it is the human contact that counts. Just listen you don’t need to talk.

  • Karen CALLplus

    Euphemisms are a ‘way into’ dealing with a difficult subjects. They are recognised and accepted signals which enable difficult conversations to start. People have a real fear of upsetting the bereaved even further than they may already be or indeed upsetting the soon to be ‘departed’. We all have a role to play in encourage forthright discussion but at the same time should not force people who may be coming to terms with end of life issues to disclose what may be deeply personal thoughts and feelings before they are ready to. This could in fact make people clam up for ever! Listening, body language, acknowledging difficulty where it is evident are things we can all do to support the dying and the bereaved.

  • acrokent

    The expanded version of Monty Python’s dead parrot skit.
    This parrot is:
    Dead
    Deceased
    Passed away
    Passed on
    Perished
    Expired
    Departed
    Finished
    Kaput
    Six feet under
    Pushing up the daisies
    Ceased to exist
    Is no more
    Faded away
    Withered away
    Gone West
    Breathed his last
    Bit the dust
    Gone swimming with the fishes(New Jersey)
    Ended his days
    Cashed in his chips
    Crapped out
    Kicked off
    Taken away
    Gave up the ghost
    Shuffled off his mortal coil
    Went the way of all flesh
    Gone to the great beyond
    Met his maker
    Turned to dust
    Kicked the bucket
    Out like a light
    Croaked
    Dead as a door nail
    Heard the heavenly trumpet
    Gone to meet St Peter
    Entered the pearly gates
    He is an ex-parrot

  • Angela Forero

    Six feet under has a Spanish equivalent, in Colombia at least: “3 metros bajo tierra”

  • Angela Forero

    In Colombia also, very colloquially, “se lo llevó la pelona” = “the bald one (death) took him/her with her”.

  • porry

    In Colombia we say “chupando gladiolo”. It means to be “sucking at the gladiola”, plants in the cemetery.

  • Nai-yu Ker

    Off the top of my heads, some (rather silly) input in Mandarin Chinese from Taiwan:
    領便當:picked up one’s lunch/dinner box (bento)
    去蘇州賣鴨蛋:selling duck eggs in Suzhou
    葛屁了:choked on one’s fart(??) (I’ve never really understood this usage)
    駕鶴西歸:gone west riding the crane
    翹辮子:cocked up braids
    解脫:relieved
    成仙:became a deity

  • Layla

    Hi everybody,
    Here are two expressions used in Arabic language:
    انتقل إلى رحمة الله (entaqala ela rahmati llah) = He moved to the mercy of God.
    انتقل إلى جوار ربه (entaqala ela jiwari rabih) = He moved to the neighbourhood of his Lord.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nadia.pintea.31 Nadia Pintea

    Some more Romanian expressions
    a adormi – to go to
    sleep

    a ajunge la export –
    to go to export

    a-i crește grădinița
    pe piept – to have the garden growing on one’s chest

    a face macii roșii la
    colțul gurii – to have red poppies in the corner of one’s mouth

    a face pneumonie – to
    catch a pneumonia

    a-și frânge gâtul –
    to break one’s neck

    a se îmbolnăvi de
    deces – to get sick with death

    a-l lua Aghiuță –
    to be taken by Aghiuta (imaginary character from the Romanian
    folklore considered spirit of evil, main enemy of God, although its
    name comes from aghios which means “saint” in Greek)

    a-l lua mama dracului –
    to be taken by devil’s mother

    a o mierli – to die,
    gypsy expression, apparently comes from the blackbird (mierla)

    glonțul rece – the
    cold bullet

    a se prăji la lumânare
    – to get burnt by the candle

    a-l pupa măsa rece–
    to be kissed by one’s mother while cold

    a se răci – to get
    cold

    a-i rămâne (cuiva)
    ciolanele undeva – to have one’s bones left somewhere

    a-l strânge Dumnezeu
    de pe pământ – to be taken by God from the earth

    a-i suna ceasul – to
    hear the bell ringing

    a trece în lumea
    drepților – to pass into the righteous world

    a-l vedea ăl-de-Sus –
    to see the Almighty

    a vedea pe dracul –
    to see the devil

    a-si da sufletul –
    give one’s soul away

    a-si da ultima suflare-
    give one’s last breath away

    a sufla in lumanare –
    blow the candle

    a trece Styxul –
    cross the Styx (Greek mythology – underworld river of the death)

    a fi oale si ulcele –
    become pots and mugs, equivalent of dead and buried

    a trece in
    nemurire/vesnicie – become immortal/eternal

    a porni pe ultimul drum
    – take the last journey

    a-si pleca pleoapele –
    close one’s eyelids

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