The Grammarphobia Blog

Did Stella die?

Q: Two dinner companions recently got into a spirited debate about using “died” in referring to a euthanized pet. Leaving aside the general advisability of being specific, is there any authority for characterizing “died” as incorrect or misleading here?

A: As two long-time owners of Golden Retrievers and Labs, we’ve had to put down several ailing dogs over the years.

If someone asks about them, we usually say they died. In the rare instances when we have to be specific, we’ll say we put them down or we euthanized them.

If a friend were to ask whether our debilitated, 12-year-old Labrador Retriever Stella died a natural death, for example, we’d say she was put down. In speaking to a vet, we might say she was euthanized.

If there’s no reason to be precise, however, we aren’t. If a friend were to ask if Stella is still alive, for example, we’d simply say, “No, she died.”

Is this use of “die” incorrect?

No. The primary meaning of the verb “die” in standard dictionaries is to stop living. And that’s what Stella did (with a little help from her best friends).

Is the usage misleading? Yes, but English speakers are often deliberately imprecise or misleading.

The usual answer to the question “How are you?” is “fine” or “OK” or “good” or something similar. Only rarely is precision expected: “the CT scan was negative” or “the stitches are coming out tomorrow.”

If someone dies, is it really necessary in casual conversation to mention that he was wearing a “Do not resuscitate” band or that his family had ended life support?

In other words, if it’s relevant, add the painful details. If not, don’t. Save yourself and others the discomfort.

Interestingly, the verb “die” doesn’t generally appear in Old English literature. Instead, an Anglo-Saxon might have said someone “is dead” (wesan déad ) or “was dead” (wæs déad).

However, “die” does exist in Old Norse, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, and other early Germanic languages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the verb “is generally held to have been early lost in Old English” and “re-adopted in late Old English or early Middle English from Norse.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the verb (deȝen in Middle English) is from the History of the Holy Rood, a Christian manuscript written around 1135 about the Cross.

We’ll end with an example of the verb “die” from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 68:

Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn,
When beauty lived and died as flowers do now,
Before the bastard signs of fair were born,
Or durst inhabit on a living brow.

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