The Grammarphobia Blog

Why does “croak” mean to die?

Q: How did “croaking” come to mean dying? Does it have anything to do with the sound a frog makes?

A: People who die are said to “croak” because of the croaking sounds they make on their deathbeds. Here’s the story.

When the verb “croak” entered English in the 15th century, it meant to “utter a deep, hoarse, dismal cry, as a frog or a raven,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The sound could be made by a human as well as an animal.

Although it may possibly be related to an Old English word for a raven’s sound, the OED says, the Middle English versions of “croak” (the ancestors of our word) are probably “later formations imitating or suggesting varieties of animal and other sounds.”

In the early 19th century, the verb took on the slang sense of dying, according to the dictionary. Here’s a citation from an 1873 slang dictionary: “Croak, to die—from the gurgling sound a person makes when the breath of life is departing.”

The noun “croak” entered English in the second half of the 16th century, according to OED citations. Here’s an example of a human croak from Anthony Trollope’s 1861 novel Barchester Towers:

“ ‘I told you so, I told you so!’ is the croak of a true Job’s comforter.”

If you’re in the mood for more, we wrote blog items in 2008 and 2011 about euphemisms for death and dying.

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