The Grammarphobia Blog

Shuffling off this mortal coil

Q: My boss asked me to research the use of the verb “pass” for dying. My aged unabridged dictionary states that both “pass” and “pass away” are archaic terms for to die, but my boss notes that “pass” seems to be enjoying a resurgence. Do you have any light to shed on this issue?

A: The verb “pass” passed into English in the early 13th century by way of England’s Norman rulers. The Anglo-Norman verb passer meant, among other things, to pass by, to exceed or surpass, to go beyond, and to depart life, and those were among the earliest meanings of the verb “pass” in English.

The English verb has been used in reference to dying since around the year 1230, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Many of the early published references cited in the OED use it in the verbal phrases “pass to God” or “pass to heaven.” The verbal phrase “pass away,” which is more common today, dates from the 14th century.

The word “pass” has been used alone since around 1340 as a verb meaning to die. The OED cites published references in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and many other writers. Here’s an example from King Lear (1608): “Vex not his ghost, / O let him passe.” The OED says, however, that this use of “pass” alone for “die” is now primarily North American.

I too have noticed a resurgence of this usage in recent years (for example, “Uncle Julius passed a year ago”), and it’s not surprising. We’re very inventive about speaking of death without actually mentioning it. Instead of dying, we croak, buy it, bite the dust, or shuffle off this mortal coil. I wonder why!

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