Metaphors and Euphemisms
Twenty-first-century human beings live in a culture in which "dead" is a four-letter word. Because four-letter words have a reputation for being obscene, death is obscene to modern sensibilities; that is, to those in modern death-denying cultures who rarely have firsthand experiences with the dying and the dead. Modernity has afforded people the ability to hide the dying process from public view; and often people see the dead body of a loved one to be so polluting that they pay strangers to dispose of "it" properly. The modern mind can abstract death, further buffering itself from death's horror, through the use of metaphor and euphemism when describing the dead. In daily conversations the deceased tend to pass or fade away, embark on a desired trip to meet their eternal reward or loved ones ("Grandpa is back with Grandma"), or merely fall asleep ("She earned her rest").
Some scholars argue that our circumlocutions should be understood as evidence of death denial, as should such colorful expressions as "buying the farm," "pushing up daisies," or "kicking the bucket." On the other hand, euphemism has a long tradition of use when dealing with the topic of death, and the use of metaphor is often inevitable when trying to explain certain facets of the human condition, particularly death.
Humans are symbolic creatures, perceiving and experiencing their social worlds largely through their symbols, many of which are figurative and metaphoric. Instead of understanding metaphors as embellishments of facts, they are better conceived as ways in which these facts are experienced, filtering and shaping apprehensions of social reality and understandings of things about which they are unfamiliar—like death.
Distinctive metaphors and euphemisms have emerged from the various social institutions directly involved with death. The more powerful the institution, the more likely its metaphors leak into everyday parlance and produce common world-views. Over the twentieth century, these have included the military, medical, and political orders— the social institutions primarily responsible for death control.
Twentieth-century militarism had a powerful effect on death's metaphoric framings. In George Orwell's futuristic novel Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), the Ministry of Truth proclaimed "War is peace." In the twenty-first century war is "pacification." The military sanitizes its lethal activities through benign labels (e.g., the Nazis assigning carloads of concentration camp–bound to Sonderbehandlung, meaning "special treatment") or by dehumanizing its enemies (who are "fumigated," "exterminated," or "wasted" like cockroaches and rats). In Doublespeak (1989), William Lutz distinguishes euphemism, which covers the unpleasant, from doublespeak, whose purpose is to deceive and mislead. To illustrate the latter, he noted how the U.S. State Department replaced "killing" with "unlawful deprivation of life." Dead enemy soldiers are "decommissioned aggressor quantum." Deaths of innocent civilians are referred to as "collateral damage." When commandos parachuted in the early 1980s American invasion of Grenada, the Pentagon referred to the action as a "predawn vertical insertion."
In Illness As Metaphor (1978), Susan Sontag describes the military metaphors applied to disease, the alien invaders that breach bodily defense systems necessitating surgical, chemical, or radiation counterattacks. The frontline in the cultural war against death is the medical establishment. Here death has long been viewed as failure, giving rise to a host of clinically detached euphemisms. Patients "go sour," their respirations cease, or they are simply "no longer with us." Emergency room nurses make references to someone being "DDD" ("definitely done dancing") or "getting bagged."
The euphemisms extend to those most likely to die—those who have lived the longest lives. The most death prone are not "old people" but rather "senior citizens," "Golden Agers," or simply "the mature." They die in "homes"—rest homes, nursing homes, retirement homes—where they are too often deindividualized and victimized by under-paid staff.
In the political arena, heated battles on the moralities of abortion and euthanasia have produced a new language for death-related matters. In the contest between social movements supporting or opposing legalized abortion and euthanasia has emerged the self-referencing "pro-choice" and "pro-life" labels. For those opposing assisted or accelerated death, "active euthanasia" is a euphemism for murder. For proponents, the practice of keeping the terminally ill alive on hi-tech life supports is "technological torturing" of the dying.
Crisp mortality references often enter into American parlance when referring to nonthanatological matters. People often "die" symbolically, as when failing in their social performances. One certainly does not want to be "dead wrong," an office "deadwood," a "deadbeat" father, or within a "dead-end" job. Companies may adopt a "poison pill" defense against a hostile takeover attempt, leaving workers worried about being "axed" or appearing on "Schindler's List." The symbolic potency of such death metaphors rise with increases in the centrality of work roles to the identities of men and women. Studies have shown that when a business facility shuts down workers often go through the deathlike stages described by the death expert Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. A late 1980s survey of Richmond, Virginia, entrepreneurs published in the Wall Street Journal cited nearly six in ten saying failure was the incident they feared most, with fear of death being but a distant third for both sexes. And when the worker actually does die, he or she dies metaphorically in occupationally unique ways: Deceased soldiers "answer their last roll call," chefs "lay down their knife and fork," actors "make a final exit," and boxers "take the last count."
Among those whose job it is to deal with the dead, death professionals as scholar Michael Lesy calls them, metaphors arising from their humor produce the death desensitizations required for them to cope with society's "dirty work." Among themselves, funeral directors, for instance, refer to embalming as "pickling" or "curing the ham," cremation as "shake and bake," and coffins as "tin cans." When dealing with the public, the "patient" (not the corpse) is "interred" (not buried) within a "casket" (not coffin) beneath a "monument" (not tombstone).
So what do all of these colorful, humorous, consoling, deceptive, demeaning, and frightful framings of death mean? Are they useful? The metaphors and euphemisms that people apply to the dying and the dead shape the way the living now see their connection with the dead. They can sanitize the profound pollution posed by a decaying corpse and assuage the profound moral guilt of collective murder during times of war. They can reaffirm the meaningfulness of the deceased's life ("He lives with us all") or degrade their very existence ("The vermin were whacked").
Perhaps another way to think about the matter is to ask how many words there are that solely capture the single fact that this person or creature is no more. "He died" is the simplest way English speakers can make the point. From there on, everything is an elaboration of a phenomenon of which none of the living has any direct knowledge. The military borrows from the medical when it conducts its surgical operations to remove "the cancer"; the medical from the military in its "wars against enemy diseases." In sum, metaphors and euphemisms for death are employed as both shields and weapons, to cover the unpleasant or distasteful aspects of mortality, or to apply the power of death to reinforce the significance of certain events among the living.
Bailey, William. Euphemisms and Other Double-Talk. New York: Doubleday, 1983.
Brown, Richard. A Poetic for Sociology: Toward a Logic of Discovery for the Human Sciences. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
"Fear of Death Takes a Back Seat." Wall Street Journal, 23 July 1987, 1.
Friedrich, Otto. "Of Words That Ravage, Pillage, Spoil." Time, 9 January 1984, 76.
Lesy, Michael. The Forbidden Zone. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987.
Lutz, William. Doublespeak: From "Revenue Enhancement" to "Terminal Living": How Government, Business, Advertisers, and Others Use Language to Deceive You. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four, A Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949.
Sontag, Susan. Illness As Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.
Turner, Ronny, and Charles Edgley. "Death As Theatre: A Dramaturgical Analysis of the American Funeral." Sociology and Social Research 60, no. 4 (1975):377–392.
Stein, Howard F. "Death Imagery and the Experience of Organizational Downsizing: Or, Is Your Name on Schindler's List?" In the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations [web site]. Available from www.sba.oakland.edu/ispso/html/stein.html
MICHAEL C. KEARL