You can tell a lot about a culture by looking at its euphemisms. At its most basic, a euphemism is a word or phrase that’s a softer substitute for a blunt expression. This is something that you’re likely using constantly, whether you’re describing an obnoxious person as “a strong personality” or a badly cooked meal as “not to my taste.” But to make a general rule, the more taboo a topic is, the more euphemisms there are for it. That’s why there are so many roundabout ways to talk about sex, money and anything else considered inappropriate in polite company. While it’s impossible to calculate which topic attracts the most euphemistic phrasing, there’s one kind that reliably pops up again and again: death euphemisms.
Death wasn’t always as taboo a topic as it is today. Sure, it’s never exactly been a happy subject of conversation, but it was once a more blunt fact of everyday life. As life expectancy has gone up and our funerals have become more sterile, death has become more and more hidden, physically and linguistically.
While death euphemisms may be useful in softening the news of someone’s passing, it also can cause some undue confusion. Someone new to English has to learn countless ways of saying “they died,” and even native English speakers can be thrown off by a regional phrase. To help out the morbidly interested, we compiled some of the most common euphemisms for death in the English language. While some speak for themselves, we’ll also delve into the history and meaning of some of the stranger phrases.
The Most Common Death Euphemisms In English
As already said, death euphemisms are meant to act as softer versions of the word “died,” but they don’t all work the same way. You wouldn’t say someone is worm food at their memorial, for example. We divided them up into some broad categories to show the different ways people use death euphemisms.
Neutral Death Euphemisms
First, there are euphemisms that are pretty much synonyms. These words appear when people just don’t want to keep saying “died.”
- They are deceased.
- They ceased living.
- They expired.
Respectful Death Euphemisms
These are the euphemisms that soften the blow of what’s being said. Many of these refer to religious beliefs, which are only respectful if the person who died subscribed to them.
- They passed (away). — possibly the most common English death euphemism.
- They slipped away.
- They’re at rest.
- They lost their life.
- They left this life.
- They entered eternal rest.
- They were called back to God.
- They were called home.
- They joined their ancestors.
- They passed beyond the veil.
- They’re in a better place.
- They’ve departed.
- They’re not with us anymore.
- They’re at the pearly gates. — some Christian denominations envision heaven’s entrance as pearly gates, with St. Peter deciding who can enter. It’s also a concept used so often in cartoons it has essentially become its own genre.
- They went west. — this phrase started to appear in World War I, and perhaps was an allusion to the sun disappearing in the west.
- They succumbed (to [cause of death]).
- They fell victim to [cause of death].
- They lost the battle with [cause of death]. — while we’re listing these last three in the “respectful” section, we’ll note that not everyone likes referring to a fight with a disease as a “battle.” Recent research has even found war imagery to be actively harmful in how people think about cancer. Usually when you hear this, people have good intentions, but know that not everyone will appreciate it.
Dramatic Or Antiquated Euphemisms
There are a number of phrases about dying that are dramatic, either because they’re not common anymore or because they’ve just always been a bit over-the-top. Death is dramatic, of course, but saying one of these could earn you some weird looks in the 21st century.
- They perished.
- They met their demise.
- They met their maker.
- They met an untimely end.
- They’re bereft of life.
- They breathed their last (breath).
- They were cut down (in the prime of life).
- They went the way of all flesh. — everything dies, after all.
- They shuffled off this mortal coil. — this one appears in Hamlet, and it makes sense it would be popularized by William Shakespeare, the king of English drama.
- They made the ultimate sacrifice. — used for someone who died for a cause.
- They laid down their life. — another sacrificial phrase.
- They gave up the ghost. — possibly originating in a 17th century English translation of the Christian Bible, this phrase means that a person’s spirit has left their body (though calling someone’s soul or spirit a “ghost” is not common anymore).
Funny, Flippant Or Cruel Euphemisms
Sometimes, you have to approach death with a laugh. These are phrases that can be used for comedic effect, but can also come off as very cruel in certain contexts. So be careful.
- They’re taking a dirt nap.
- They’re worm food.
- They’re kaput.
- They ate it.
- They ended their earthly career.
- They took their final curtain call.
- They took their final bow.
- They’re toes up. — if your toes are up, you’re lying down, and so…dead.
- They’re belly up. — a reference to the fact fish tend to float with their stomachs upward when they die.
- They’re a stiff. — refers to the process of rigor mortis that stiffens the body after someone dies.
- They’re six feet under. — generally, people are buried six feet under the earth.
- They kicked the bucket. — no one’s sure where this phrase comes from, but we do know it inspired the “bucket list,” or the list of things someone does before they, well, kick the bucket.
- They’re pushing up daisies. — the idea here is that the buried bodies are below the flowers, and how this phrase will be received depends on how you say it. It originated in a poem about World War I that was respectful, but it can sound a bit callous.
- They bit the dust. — the phrase usually refers to someone who died in battle, and it dates back to at least 1750. It was most recently popularized in Westerns (the films about cowboys that often take place in dusty locations).
- They bought the farm. — it’s unclear what exactly the “farm” is (possibly a burial plot), but this 20th century phrase was first used by jet pilots in the U.S. military.
- They popped their clogs. — used almost exclusively in British English, no one is entirely sure where this phrase comes from.
- They came to a sticky end. — this mostly British phrase means dying in a particularly unpleasant way.
- They’re rotting in hell. — this one is probably more on the “cruel” side.
- They’re in Davy Jones’ locker. — this is a phrase reserved for those who died at sea, and whose bodies rest forever at the bottom of the ocean. While there are many theories about who exactly Davy Jones was — a saint, a pirate, a mythical personification of death — no one has been able to figure out the true story behind this phrase.
- They went bung. — an Australian phrase.
- They’re crossing the River Styx. — a reference to Greek Mythology, in which the newly dead would have to pay the ferryman to allow them to cross the river into the realm of the dead.
- They cashed in their chips. — a death euphemism that refers to gambling chips, which are usually turned in for cash at the end of the day.
- They joined the choir eternal. — there’s a lot of singing in heaven, apparently.
- They went home in a box. — a reference to the practice of shipping someone’s body back to their homeland to be buried.
- They’re brown bread. — a phrase that comes from Cockney rhyming slang, because “bread” and “dead” rhyme.
Not everyone dies of natural causes. Here are some phrases associated with a person who’s been murdered.
- They were rubbed out.
- They were offed.
- They were bumped off.
- They croaked.
- They were whacked.
- They got smoked.
- They were snuffed out.
- They were done away with.
- They were dispatched.
- They were done in.
- They were iced. — one of the more modern slangy phrases in this section, it’s unclear where this phrase originated.
- They’re sleeping with the fishes. — this refers to a person whose body was dumped in the water. While it dates back to the 19th century at least, it was popularized by The Godfather.
- They’re swimming with concrete shoes. — in the same realm as sleeping with the fishes, supposedly some people were dumped into bodies of water with dried cement weighing them down.