Passed Away

Passed Away February 17, 2016


Yesterday I heard on the news the announcement that former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali had passed away. He served in the last decade of the twentieth century during the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, and the breakup of Yugoslavia. I’ll let others reflect on his effectiveness in those years. Although I did find myself thinking of those who step up in hard times and try to do good.

But, actually, for these brief words, I found how much I was annoyed by hearing he had passed away, rather than the more direct, and to my ear honest “died.”

I’ve long found the phrase “passed away” sticks in my craw. I’m certainly not alone in this. As blogger Brian Jay Stanley observed, “It is a kind of leaving off, a gesture of open-endedness, an ellipsis at sentence’s end. It is, accordingly, the perfect word for the skeptical yet sentimental modern mind, which cannot accept annihilation, nor easily believe in immortality. ‘Passed away’ allows vague hope without dogma, as if to say, ‘He has gone somewhere else, please don’t ask for details.’” The vagueness is what annoys me. Well, that and its contraction into the single word “passed.”

I just assumed, along with Mr Stanley, that such a mushy term would be of recent coinage. But thanks to the google machine I decided to find out when and where it did come from. I was pretty surprised to discover the earliest usage in English traces back to the fourteenth century. The Lay Folks Mass Book published in 1375 contains the line “God lord graunt… rest and pese pat lastis ay to christen soules passed away.”

So, there we go. Shouldn’t have been surprised at all. Euphemism in the face of death is simply ubiquitous…

Maybe some day we’ll grow up.

But, probably not…

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