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On the spike

Rummaging around the Internet the other day, I came across a Web site offering more than 200 euphemisms for death and dying:

Many were familiar—"buy the farm," "climb the Golden Stair," "ring down the curtain and join the Choir Invisible," "shuffle off this mortal coil." But there were several novel ones, the most engaging of which was "cooking for the Kennedys."

"uying the farm"has always seemed a little odd, but Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable offers a hint as to the possible origin. Brewer’s has no entry for "buy the farm," but the "Buy. Bought It" entry says, "One has paid for death with one’s life." So presumably one pays for the farm with one’s life. Coming from a long line of farmers, I’m inclined to suggest an additional sense, that dying is the only way for a farmer to close the mortgage.

The purpose of euphemism is to distance the speaker or writer from a phenomenon that distresses. Death being one of the ultimate stressors, it appropriately has a large accumulation of circumlocutions. Many are gentle or innocent, such as "go west,""go to sleep"or "go to one’s reward." Many attempt to fend off the idea of death with a mordant jocularity: "buy a pine condo," "kick the oxygen habit," "move into upper management."

An account of the origins of the famous Monty Python "Dead Parrot" sketch reports that it was coming across the listings under death in a thesaurus that inspired the sketch, in which the gimmick was to work in as many euphemisms for dying as possible. (The same technique was the basis for their equally famous but less resonant "Cheese Shop" sketch.)

The Web site lists nothing particularly pertinent to newspapering, but there are possibilities. "To write 30" suggests completion, alluding to the practice in hard-copy days of typing “"30-" to indicate the end of a text. To "spike" a story is to kill it by impaling it on a copy spike as unusable. "To close the final edition" is a little obvious. And no doubt the exciting new realm of electronic publication will quickly kick up its own nominees.

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Posted by John McIntyre at 10:09 AM | | Comments (7)


I'd go for " 11111 " as the web's analogy to -30-

(31 in binary ... slapping out 5 ones is satisfying enough, for sure)

One of the (many) disadvantages of charging for obits is the proliferation in our local daily of euphemisms for dying: "went home to the loving arms of Jesus"; "went home to be with her precious Lord and Savior"; "entered into peaceful rest"; "departed this world." As linguistic folklore, these terms are useful; as news, not so much. Of course, by turning the obits into paid ads, the paper has already compromised their news value anyway.

I've started keeping a file of the euphemisms in paid obituaries. I'm up to 52 so far. Many are a variation of "went home to be with her Lord," but every once in a while someone will surprise me with a gem such as "tipped his wings in farewell to beloved family and friends and made for the heavens," or "God needed a beautiful rose for his bouquet; he called ***** to her rest."

My favorite paid-obit phrases:
"Called home to Glory"
"Enfolded into the bosom of the Lord"
"Caught the morning flight to heaven"

I used to think that was Only In Texas, but now I see they're everywhere.

Regarding the euphenism "buying the farm,"
I have long though that that expression was aviation oriented. When a pilot spread himself and his airplane across a field or woodland, he is said to have "bought the farm."

When Bob Dylan almost died several years ago, he reported that he thought he was a goner, that he was going to "see Elvis."

Il Professore McIntyre's reminiscences of his early English teachers remind me of my maternal grandmother. Mabel Crittenden Miller, a good Southern girl from the Commonwealth of Virginia, was ever-vigilant when it came to the English language. She raised her four children to respect language, both written and spoken, a habit which she passed on to her eldest child, my mother. Nor did the tradition end with that generation: my brother - who still requires some help at his tender age - has corrected his two daughters and I, extremely testy on the subject, correct all of them. When my grandmother died and was taken home to Orange County, Virginia to be buried,the question arose of what to inscribe on her tombstone. There was no contest. Her battle-cry, with which her husband, children, family and friends were only too familiar, won the toss: You can fool me on the translation, but you can't fool me on the grammar. Even Milton couldn't say fairer than that. Yours in English servitude, Patricia Crittenden (and damned proud of it) Yeiser

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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