Friday, August 31, 2012

Passed Tense

A friend called a few weeks ago to tell me, in solemn, reverent tones, “Bruce, I thought you should know that [Close Mutual Acquaintance] passed yesterday.”

Okay, look, before we go any further, I get it. Given my friend’s artificially grief-stricken tone of voice, I understood exactly what he was trying to tell me. There are, however, times when I just can’t help yanking someone’s chain, and this was one of those times.

“Passed?” I said. “You mean he passed gas? Did he pass a stone? I hear that’s painful. Did he pass go? I hope he remembered to collect his $200. What the [contraction for firetruck] are you talking about?”

“You know,” my friend said, even more solemnly, “he, <pregnant pause> passed away.”

“Oh, you mean he DIED (emphasis mine)?”

“Yes. That’s what I mean.”

And he still couldn’t say the word. Could not bring himself to say it, I presume, for fear of being struck dead himself. In the immortal words of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, it’s enough to make a body ashamed of the whole damned human race.

I understand the fear of death. It’s the great unknown and pretty much all of us are scared of it. And I get it that when you’re speaking with a widow or a close family member of the dearly departed, it’s more sensitive to use a word or words with less punch. The word “died” hits pretty hard and sounds so final, whereas saying someone “passed away” almost holds out hope that they’ve just lost their way and will be home for dinner.

My friend wasn’t talking about a member of his family. The dearly departed in this case was nothing more than an acquaintance, neither close nor distant, whom we both liked but didn’t have all that much contact with. His feigned grief was just that, feigned. And he still could not make himself say that this person died. Or even that he passed away.

He simply passed.

Well, no, he didn’t.

I don’t mean to pound on my friend. He’s hardly alone. This is a culture-wide phenomenon. Newspaper obituaries, which used to be written by interns on the news desk, now are largely written by family members of the deceased, who pay a hefty fee for the privilege. Consequently, obituaries are often badly written and couched in soft, politically correct language unfit for most daily newspapers. Take a look at the obituary page in your local paper (assuming it hasn’t gone out of business). Ironically, that may be the only place in the entire paper where you’ll never see the word “died.”

The aforementioned Mr. Clemens once said, “The difference between the exact word and the almost exact word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” The same could be said for “died” and “passed.” That wouldn’t be as effective a quote or draw the same chuckles, but it would be perfectly applicable.

If you’re so damned squeamish that you can’t even bring yourself to say that someone died, at least use the whole phrase when you say they’ve passed away. That’s perfectly acceptable (and usually unnecessary). To simply say that so-and-so passed is not just wrong; it’s stupid. Especially if they forgot to collect their $200.

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