PASSING has become so common lately that it seems we have a new way of dying. So and so passed, we read, we hear, we say, and it comes with a layer of respect on top of the obfuscation. Not that there’s anything new about avoiding dying, death and dead. In more religious days we would say passed over, as in Uncle Joe passing over the line between mortal and eternal life.
From passing over we moved to passing away, which suggests that we weren’t sure where Uncle Joe went or whether he went anywhere at all. We did know he died but to describe him as dead was so direct it was rude. And in the year just passed we’ve ditched the away to state merely that Uncle Joe passed. He didn’t pass over or away or even on, he just passed, and the ambiguity of that adds value to the avoidance. In the privacy of your mind you are not so obsequious, and so when someone tells you that Uncle Joe has passed the little voice in your head will exclaim that Uncle Joe must have died. Unless Uncle Joe was sitting uni exams.
We are so fearful of dying that we can’t say the word! Perhaps, too, we avoid the word as a courtesy lest we prompt someone else to be confronted by the fear.It’s this fear of death that makes cancer one of our most feared words, on a par with death and dying as a word to be avoided.
I was unaware of the discomfort people have in talking to someone with cancer until I was diagnosed with throat cancer 14 years ago. People would approach me to express their concern, to ask how I was, but very few if any used the word cancer even though I had used that word in my columns about the diagnosis.
Some used the terms Spanish dancer or the big C, two or three even formed the letter C with their fingers instead of using any spoken term, but the most common euphemism was the word thingy. They’d wave their hand in the direction of their neck, not mine, and ask something like “how are you coping with the treatment for the (a pause here) thingy?”.
They all meant well and while they were trying to spare me such a confronting word as cancer they were probably, too, seeking to spare themselves the confrontation. Cancer is too close to death.
We do translate euphemisms in our mind, as in dying for passing and cancer for Spanish dancer, until the euphemism becomes the established term and we feel constrained to develop a new detour with a new euphemism. Some euphemisms are so convoluted that the purpose seems to be to discourage translation, and the US military’s collateral damage and Donald Trump’s alternative facts are among these. Then at the turn of the century there was the NRL’s delicious term, unsportsmanlike interference, to describe footballer John Hopoate sticking his finger into an opponent’s anus, a translation akin to a punchline.
At some point a euphemism becomes the direct word, and sometimes a cruel word, and that has happened quite a number of times in descriptions meant kindly to round the sharp edges of disability. Retarded, for example, was meant to describe gently someone who was not as bright as others but in later years became an insult. As did the older terms subnormal and spastic. We should all cringe.
I assume, and hope, the term handicapped was originally a soft description for a person with a disability but it did become too direct and was retired in favour of disabled. But disabled, too, became too direct and has been swapped for a person with a disability. The word disability may be on the way out, and you may have seen the clever billboard “don’t dis my ability”.
The euphemistic overweight has been around long enough to become the primary term, and it would no longer require silent translation if the three-letter fat were not such a strangely descriptive word. Why, for goodness sake, would you refer to anyone other than yourself as overweight when you could say they were fat! Invigorating, although I dare not use it again in front of an eight-year-old visitor to our home who admonished me recently for referring to my daughter’s cat as Fat Ralph.
Among the most common euphemisms are those for stealing, and why we would want to ease the embarrassment for a thief is beyond me. Stealing is not pinching, which suggests it’s mischief rather than a crime; stealing from a shop is theft, not shoplifting. And whose sensitivities are we seeking to spare in calling a jail a correctional centre?
Because they exist to allow us to avoid realities we see as painful, to protect us from realities that frighten us, euphemisms can tell us much about our society. And the changing euphemisms and their range can map the changes in society.
It occurred to me as I read the funeral notices this morning that I’m not as immune to the need for euphemism as I imagine. As I read I replaced the word deceased, referring to a spouse or child, with the word dead, and the effect was brutal.