General Question

gailcalled's avatar

How useful or sensible are euphemisms?

Asked by gailcalled (54577points) June 2nd, 2011

My very old mother (96) died on Wednesday and many people have written to me. I am very grateful for and enjoy reading all the letters and emails but note that almost everyone refers to my mother’s passing.

Does that make the mourner feel better? Does that change what has happened?

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42 Answers

ragingloli's avatar

I suppose when it is to protect the feelings of a person, it is fine.
But publicly, when they call it “department of defence” instead of the honest name “department of WAR”, then I condemn it.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Most of us aren’t comfortable discussing death. Euphemisms help some people say something without looking the issue in the face. And I’m sorry your mother died. 96 years is pretty good, but you still lost someone.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

I am sorry about your mother’s death,Gail.
It never made me feel better when my mother and father died.I prefer straight talk.

JilltheTooth's avatar

I have usually said “died” but in the last few years, as I’ve lost some loved ones, I just can’t bring myself to say it about them. When my cousin recently…er…passed, that was the only word I was comfortable with. In regular usage, most euphemisms are fine with me, they blunt an edge, and most conversations, I found, do better when the edges are slightly rounded.

YoBob's avatar

Of course it doesn’t change what happened. However, it is a whole lot more polite to say something like “I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s passing” than “too bad the old lady kicked off”.

You should gratefully acknowledge the fact that they care enough to express their condolences regardless of the form it takes.

P.S. I’m sorry for your loss. I too have lost a mother and know that there is nothing that one can say to “make it better”.

Kardamom's avatar

I think euphemisms work to soften the blow of harsh terms.

obvek's avatar

Gail, I’m very sorry to hear the news. I know that you did a lot to care your mother over the past few years, and I am sorry for your loss.

I would ask whether this is really a euphemism at heart. I don’t know what the beliefs of the persons in question are, but it is not uncommon to believe that death is literally a passing from this world into the next.

I would also add that it is not uncommon for people to behave as if death is contagious. People (myself included) can get pretty squirrely, so it may be as much for them as for you.

Kardamom's avatar

@gailcalled Can you tell us about your mother? I’m sure everyone would love to know what kind of lady she was. If you feel up to it, please share some of your memories with us. : )

thorninmud's avatar

Denial is the first of the normal “stages of grief”. We instinctively understand when we’re approaching someone at the beginning of the grief process that they may not yet have come to terms with the full reality of the situation, and that forcing the issue could cause more harm than good.

gailcalled's avatar

I should add that I was not being judgmental but simply interested in what others think.

Because of my mother’s age, my responses have been very different from how I felt when other beloved family members left.

One took his own life, one had a mountaineering accident far too young, and another succumbed to cancer, again far too soon.

Kubler- Ross’s codified stages of grief do not always proceed in an orderly fashion and sometimes return at an unexpected moment.

I thank everyone here for their kind words, whatever they are. Sometime when I can focus and recharge, I’ll write a litte about my mother’s llife.

JLeslie's avatar

I feel more comfortable with the term died, but frequently when talking to someone else, I use passed away, because it seems to be the more acceptable term.

Sorry for your loss. :(.

gailcalled's avatar

A neutral phrase is “I am so sorry to learn about your mother.”

faye's avatar

Sorry about your mom, @gailcalled. You will feel such a hole in your routine for awhile. I prefer the word ‘died’. It sounds honest, it only means one thing.

Haleth's avatar

Oh, I’m so sorry about your mother. Euphemisms do have their place, sometimes- in this case, I think the well-wishers were trying to be tactful and sensitive. But it doesn’t really change the meaning of the statement at all. Sometimes I wish people would say what they’re really thinking.

So maybe euphemisms are useful, but not sensible? People do things like this a lot to make relationships and social interactions flow more smoothly.

anartist's avatar

Euphemisms add creativity to the English language. The word you are referring to, though, is not quite a euphemism. Depending on your point of view, one can see is “passing beyond this vale to another, that of eternal life” The word “death” is a little more final; it does not suggest there are any vales beyond this one to which to pass.

All that being said, I am sorry for your loss.

tranquilsea's avatar

I’ve wondered the same thing. I often struggle to find the right words: ones that hopefully comfort, acknowledge without minimizing or maximizing, and tread carefully. Thus “passing” sounds to me to be softer way of putting it.

After my mom died I don’t think I could have handled a bunch of people saying “Sorry your mom died”. It was bad and shocking enough to see I didn’t want harsh reminders. I still have a hard time saying she died.

The word I’ve struggled with the most has been “sorry”. To me sorry means you had something do with it. But, of course, that is not the case.

Tricky business.

WillWorkForChocolate's avatar

Aww Gail, I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. I tend to use words like “passing” or “passed on” because it feels very uncomfortable (to me) to say “died”. It sounds so much nicer to say “I’m sorry to hear that your mother passed away” than it does to say “I’m sorry to hear that your mom died.”

At least people are tactful enough to use the “kind” euphemisms instead of the harsh ones.

(((HUGS))) to you sweetie.

WasCy's avatar

I’m sorry for your loss.

I hate the term “passed” and “passed on” and other such terms only slightly less than I abhor “ascended to heaven”, “called to God”, “joined the angels” and that set of terms. In fact, I think that “passed” is a euphemism for those terms, as it’s a shortening of “passed on to a better place”.

And that keeps reminding me to exhort anyone who thinks that there is “a better place” for them than Earth to hurry themselves thither. I like Earth; it’s the only place I’m going to live, and I think this place would be a lot better without those people. At least, without those who think they have to keep repeating that BS.

JilltheTooth's avatar

I get your point @WasCy , but what would you suggest as an alternative? As I said above, for me, my recent loss is raw, and I’ve had trouble with the word “died” as it seems more final and abrupt than I want to deal with. I need to ease into that particular word. It took me a couple of years to be able to say that my Dad had died. Yeah, I know they’re gone, dead, whatever, but I have trouble with the finality and harsh sound of the word.

WillWorkForChocolate's avatar

I get the whole “religious” thing behind saying “passed on” but to me “passed away” sounds different. Also, even if I weren’t a believer, I would much rather have someone say, “Sorry your cousin passed away” instead of “Sorry your cousin died”. When I’m grieving over someone, hearing “they died” is akin to hearing “they snuffed it”. It just feels like a dagger to the heart.

flutherother's avatar

Sorry to hear about your mother. I know how shocked and numbed you feel when someone so close to you dies, even when they are a good age and it is expected. I don’t like the word ‘passed’ in these circumstances, it is too bland.

wundayatta's avatar

It is a loss. The deceased is no longer around to talk to or be with. If you were close to them, it’s much harder because you have to deal with the repercussions of that loss. There is a 96 year-old mother-sized hole in your life, Gail. And I’m sorry you have to cope with it. It must be exhausting and difficult. I hope you have siblings or others to help, and you know where to come for sympathy and emotional support. And virtual hugs {{{{{{{{{{Gail}}}}}}}}}

DominicX's avatar

I completely understand the usage of euphemisms. As @Kardamom said, they work to soften the blow of harsh terms, like “die”. Many languages do this. I don’t see it as a form of denial, but a form of looking at it in a more positive light rather than focusing on the fact that the person is gone. However, it’s different for others. I’ve lost relatives and had no problem saying that they “died”. But that’s not everyone and I would probably use euphemisms around other people just in case.

However, sometimes euphemisms can be ambiguous and a bit confusing and so far removed from the meaning they are substituting for that it takes away from the original term. I don’t mean to reference a comedy in a serious thread, but I do think this illustrates it pretty well: In an episode of The Simpsons, the town becomes convinced Homer has died though Marge is unaware of it. A group of townspeople arrive at her house to comfort her and she doesn’t understand they they’re there. Flanders explains he’s there “on account of Homer’s passing.” Marge stares blankly at him. “Away.” says Flanders. Marge stares blankly again. “Into death.” He says. Finally, Marge gasps.

There’s nothing wrong with euphemisms to “soften the blow” unless the euphemisms take away from the original term. When it comes to something as sensitive as the death of a relative, I see nothing wrong with using “passing”.

WasCy's avatar

That’s why I used / use the word “loss”. It may sound foolish to some to hear / say “I lost my parents,” (what kind of careless kid are you, anyway, to lose your parents? and where did you put them last?, etc.), but it expresses the thought without using the verb for death.

tranquilsea's avatar

@WasCy ”(what kind of careless kid are you, anyway, to lose your parents? and where did you put them last?, etc.)”

That’s the problem I have with lost. I use it, reluctantly.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

They are not useful. Sorry about your mom, lost mine 8 years ago and still feel it to this day. Euphemisms are just some mamby pamby way to avoid saying what something really is because it makes people feel better about what it is or isn’t; like terminating a pregnancy instead of an abortion; making love instead of f*****g, fornicating, or sexual intercourse; put down instead of euthanized, etc. It is the official “talking out the side of one’s neck” because they don’t want to talk straight.

JilltheTooth's avatar

So, @Hypocrisy_Central , you see no reason to ease your wording a bit for the sake of others? That’s too bad. And frankly, if you don’t know the difference between “making love” and “f***ing”, then that’s really too bad. I’m glad that my friends understand the difference between being gentle when I am grieving, and standing on some absurd “absolute word usage” pretentious soapbox. I like that language is fluid and allows for kindness during hard emotional times.

Kardamom's avatar

I agree with @JilltheTooth here. It’s kind of like saying I always tell the truth, because honesty is the best policy, even when it hurts someone’s feelings, needlessly.

tranquilsea's avatar

@Kardamom that was my sister’s belief for too many years. She became known as the mean lady around town.

JilltheTooth's avatar

And really, it’s not like anyone is lying when they use euphemisms.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

@JilltheTooth So, @Hypocrisy_Central , you see no reason to ease your wording a bit for the sake of others? I try to keep those incidences way down, if someone can’t handle the truth and straight talk I don’t say anything at all.

And frankly, if you don’t know the difference between “making love” and “f***ing”, then that’s really too bad. Two people hooking up at a frat party or, after a night of drinking and dancing do not have any love in the picture. They hardly even know each other, unless they are going to believe that love at 1st sight bull crap, or until the booze wear off. And if she was accepting his drinks all night before she got in the bed she, in logical actuality, slightly better than the girl on the curb wanting the money straight in her hands without all the chit chat ”lets pretend to be friends” junk.

JilltheTooth's avatar

And those are your only types of sexual encounters? Again I say, that’s really too bad.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Not me, but I can’t recall how many times I have heard two people hooking up say they are “making love” or “made love” last night when they are really just two horny people using each other for a night or a time to satisfy the itch in their loins.

Buttonstc's avatar

I’m going to choose to ignore the more cynical things expressed and get back to the topic at hand, namely death and how to handle it.

Do euphemisms serve a useful purpose ? Most times they do and especially when people are going through such an emotional time.

And personally I’m willing to cut people a lot of slack and just appreciate that they say anything at all. It’s better than nothing.

When my mother decided to choose suicide, I got a considerable amount of nothing since many people felt so uncomfortable about the subject that they couldn’t bring themselves to say anything at all. But your REAL friends come through no matter how awkward the situation and that’s when you find out which are friend and which merely acquaintances.

But I also realize that even “passed” was uncomfortable because of its presumption of passing to a better place. But because of the ridiculous holdover from the medieval churches’ presumption that suicides literally go straight to Hell, they can’t even be given a burial service. Maybe this creates an unconscious perception that passed can’t be used as it could bring up reminders of that. Who knows?

Fortunately my beliefs had long passed the point of being stuck in the dark ages but they most likely didn’t realize that. So much for euphisms.

I have a tendency to prefer bluntly saying “died” but admittedly it’s an abrupt type of word, factually true tho it may be.

I don’t usually say passed because it doesn’t seem natural to me personally. But I certainly understand why most people do. As was pointed out, it is generally the commonly accepted term.

Plus I’m also aware of my verbivore tendencies to be far more cognizant of particularities of language usage than the average person (I’m sure we both share that trait, Gail).

Let’s face it, the majority of folks just don’t analyze word usage and it’s intricacies nearly as much as some of us think they ought to :)

They are just saying what most people say and I think its just nice for them to say anything at all.

Even tho not entirely unexpected, I’m sorry to hear of your loss. I know this is a hectic time for you. Any death at any age is always difficult to deal with. It’s great you had that much time with your Mom and I know that adjusting to that loss will take a considerable amount of time.

anartist's avatar

I may refer to my mother as being “gone”. My mother has been gone these past few years. That is true no matter why she is gone. I remember her answering the phone shortly after my father died—it was a call from one of the businesses he dealt with or something—she said “He can’t come to the phone right now. He’s resting.”

In an odd replay, I called to talk to my mother [at my brother’s house where she had been living] and my sister [who was visiting] sad “she can’t come to the phone right now. She’s sleeping” so I said “when will she be awake?” My sister answered “She won’t”

To my sister and brothers’ credit I might add that I was going through a hard time just then and they were worried about how to break it to me. My mother had just died and my sister, a doctor, had been there with her.

Buttonstc's avatar

Well, your sister gets points for creativity. At least she didn’t get all clinical about it.

Nimis's avatar

I’m really sorry for your loss, Gail. Even though she lived a long life, it never seems to be enough time with your loved ones. I suspect this would be true even if we lived in biblical times.

I don’t like to say died because it speaks to the event itself. I prefer to say gone and loss because it speaks to the lingering sadness that follows for those still living.

Death itself isn’t sad. But the emptiness felt after a death is another matter.

augustlan's avatar

Now I’m trying to remember if I used a euphemism when I sent you my earlier condolences.

I tend to say “I’m sorry for your loss.” I think most people are probably just trying to be sensitive to the recipient, and being unsure about what to say, they err on the side of softness.

gailcalled's avatar

I am happy to receive any condolence notes or calls and object to no language. I raised this issue out of curiosity and not from any personal bias.

So, thank you, everyone, for your kind words and thoughts.

My daughter and I are sitting on my deck in our pj’s, drinking tea, teasing Milo and doing nothing but admiring the newly opened bearded irises, peonies, red poppies, fragrant roses, clematis, and rhododendrons. This is the first time in 10 days that I have been able to be here now. I’ve been running on empty and now can refuel.

Buttonstc's avatar

Cats are such a wonderful distraction from the cares of the world, aren’t they?

And when they’re done playing, they are the most fabulous object lessons in how to relax totally :)

gailcalled's avatar

@Buttonstc: Both cats and daughters.

effy's avatar

Passing is more gentle than dead. I think it is just meant to help the mourner. There are euphemisms that mean to hide the dangerousness of some activity or other. Those are bad.

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