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

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:

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

Stille træskoene—to leave one’s clogs behind

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

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

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

τίναξε τα πέταλα—to cast the petals

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

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

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

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

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)

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)

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

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

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.