Mining the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, David Crystal follows words and themes through the ages. In this excerpt of Chapter 1, we can revel in the marvelous human ingenuity in describing death.
An Excerpt From David Crystal's Words in Time and Place
A remarkable creativity surrounds the vocabulary of death. The words and expressions range from the solemn and dignified to the jocular and mischievous. And there is no better example of the latter than the “parrot” sketch in the BBC television series, Monty Python. A customer returns to a pet shop where he had earlier bought a supposedly living parrot. The owner refuses to accept that the bird is dead, and the confrontation leads to a glorious outburst of deathly lexicon (quoted here without the actions of the characters shown in the spelling):
Customer: He's bleeding demised!
Owner: No no! He's pining!
Customer: He's not pining! He's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He has expired and gone to meet his maker! Is a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed him to the perch he be pushing up the daisies! His metabolic processes are now history! He's off the twig! He’s kicked the bucket! He shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the bleeding choir invisible! This is an ex-parrot!!
This perfusion of defunctive synonymy is not solely a modern phenomenon. An Anglo-Saxon equivalent to the Monty Python scriptwriters would have had over 40 expressions in Old English to choose from. His customer could have described his parrot as gone (gegan), departed (leoran), fallen (gefeallan), died away (acwelan), parted from life (linnan ealdre), going on a journey (geferan), totally died off (becwelan), with it spirits and forth (gast onsendan), completely scattered (tostencan), or glided away (glidan). We can't be sure about the nuances of meaning differentiating all of the verbs, but it’s plain that the Anglo-Saxons were as concerned about finding the ways to talk about death as we are today.
There's a world of difference, though, between the tone of those Anglo-Saxon expressions and those often encountered now, and this is reflected in the opening entries of the intransitive verbs for ‘die.’ The early verbs are rather mundane and literal notions of ‘leaving,’ such as wend, go out of this world, fare, leave, and part. Only later did we get a sense of where one is going to, with an initial focus on ancestors evolving into the notion of a divine presence: be gathered to one's fathers, go over to the majority, go home, pass to one's reward, launch into eternity, go to glory, meet one's maker, get one's call.
The list displays a remarkable inventiveness, as people struggle to find fresh forms of expression. The language of death is inevitably euphemistic, but few of the verbs or idioms shown here are elaborate or opaque. In fact the history of verbs for dying displays remarkable simplicity: 86 of the 121 entries (over 70%) consist of only one syllable, and monosyllables figure largely into the multi-word entries (such as pay one’s debt to nature). Only 16 verbs are disyllabic, and only three are trisyllabic (determine, disperish, miscarry), loanwords from French, and along with expire, trespass, and decease showing the arrival of a more scholarly vocabulary in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Even the euphemisms of later centuries have a markedly monosyllabic character (such as slip one’s cable, kick the bucket, meet one's maker).
Words for death and all the semantic and grammatical categories represented in the HTOED are numerous (over 1100), as people search for ways of renewing their stock of apt metaphors, and they display a variety of sources. The Bible is one influence on the list below, as seen in Wycliffe’s disperish, Tyndale's depart, Coverdale's die the death, and the King James Bible’s give up the ghost and the silver cord is loosed. Classical texts are another: Greek mythology is the source of take the ferry; Latin, the source of pay one’s debt to nature and go over to the majority. Shipping provides slip one’s cable; the livestock industry, kick the bucket; pastimes, peg out and cash in one’s checks; mining, go up the flume; finance, hand in one’s accounts. Wartime produces a wide range of slang expressions (e.g. pack up, cop it, conk, stop one, buy it) as well as more solemn idioms (e.g. shed one's blood, fall a victim). Regional variation is very limited but we do see some Australianisms in the list (pass in, go bung), and some words are clearly favored in certain parts of the English-speaking world (e.g. succumb in India).