The Grammarphobia Blog

Death sentences

Q: An NPR report on the death of the Indy driver Dan Wheldon while racing in Las Vegas last month said he “passed” rather than “died.” When did we begin to say the deceased “passed”? This seems rather quaint, but is it correct?

A: The subject of how we talk about death has been on our minds lately because we’ve been reading the collected letters of Jessica Mitford, author of The American Way of Death (1963).

We had a posting a few years ago on the use of “pass” to mean “die,” but we’ll revive it here with an excerpt from the third edition of Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I.

As we wrote in the earlier posting, the verb “pass” passed into English in the early 13th century by way of England’s Norman rulers.

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 by itself 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.

We 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.

Is the usage legit? Yes, especially in the US, but we prefer using plain old “die,” whch entered English in the early 12th century, when we mean “die.” This is what Pat has to say about it in Woe Is I:

“You’ve probably noticed that death is a favorite playground of clichés. This is too bad. In situations where people most need sincerity, what do they get? Denial. There’s no shame in saying somebody died, but the vocabulary of mortality avoids it. Think again before using expressions like passed away or passed on (sometimes reduced to just passed ), untimely end, cut down in his prime, called to his Maker, called away, great beyond, this mortal coil, bought the farm, hopped the twig (a variation on fell off his perch), kicked the bucket, gone to a better place, handed in his dinner pail, checked out, grim reaper, in the midst of life, irreparable loss, broke the mold, vale of tears, time heals all, words can’t express, tower of strength, or he looks like he’s sleeping.”

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