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This too shall pass

November 30, 2011

What is up with this new way to say that a person has ceased to be, that she’s met her Maker, that she’s expired, bereft of life, pushing up daisies, joined the choir invisible?

Cruising through my Facebook feed today, I find a link from a friend to an article about a local legend in New Orleans. Check your local newspapers, listen to your friends and colleagues when breaking news of a death, and you’ll find the same. Thankfully, most of the national newspapers, including the New York Times, haven’t succumbed to this pathetic habit.

I’m speaking, of course, of the cloyingly polite word pass and all its forms (passed away, passing) that people seem to think is better, more polite, than died and death. Died is a perfectly fine word that’s been around forever. The etymology is, according to Merriam-Webster, from the Middle English dien, which is akin to both the Old Norse deyja and the Old High German touwen, both of which mean to die. If it was good for all those Vikings and Germans and the father of English literature, why must we desert it?

My theory is that we Americans (and Westerners) in the past 50 years have been so barraged with demands and exhortations to be sensitive to others’ feelings, that we’ve insidiously pulled this sensitivity into our language. The result is a lack of directness in our meaning, a diminution in our communication, and general mayhem and noise.

If any of you ever says about me that I’ve “passed,” I’ll haunt you for all of eternity in every way I can possibly imagine.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 30, 2011 11:20 p.11.

    Thanks for the rhetorical rant. However, our choice of diction was decidedly deliberate. (Well, definitely deliberate in the case of “pass,” but perhaps not all of the time.) Coco Robicheaux was a deeply spiritual individual, and his religious pastiche did not view death with the finality connoted in the word “die.” Rather, Coco saw our existence as a series of stages. The end of one earthly life simply resulted in a movement or “passing” to the next. “Pass” and “death” may have similar denotations, but their meanings are not the same; we opted for the meaning that (we believed) fit the story and the subject the best.
    B.E. Mintz
    Editor & Publisher
    NOLA Defender

  2. November 30, 2011 11:20 p.11.

    I have not read the NOLA Defender article, but in general I suspect that such phrases are appearing more constantly in newspaper obituaries since many newspapers now print obituaries submitted by family members, rather than write their own.

  3. November 30, 2011 11:20 p.11.

    Mr. Mintz, Thank you for your clarification. I am much more sympathetic to your usage when citing the specific spiritual sense that you do, and especially when it’s done to honor the sensibilities of the deceased. I find it less convincing and intentional by the general populace, however, who seem to have latched on to the phrase from politeness or fear of offending than from any true spiritual beliefs.

    ICchris, I think you’re right about where the habit comes from.

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