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Old 10-05-2019, 02:02 AM
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Has “passed away” always been a straight euphemism for “died”?


I had the impression that in recent years it has slowly become more broad in its meaning, as many words and terms do—but that when I was young it meant dying very peacefully, in your sleep or at least in bed. So I found it jarring to increasingly see people say someone “passed away” from an explosion, or a fall from a great height or whatever.

But it has occurred to me that I may have always just assumed that was the specific meaning, because the imagery of the phrasing is so suggestive of that kind of death. But maybe even when I was a kid it was intended to mean any kind of death, and I just didn’t notice it until recently. Does anyone have old dictionaries or some way to trace the understanding of this term? I imagine it’s tricky, because in so many cases you can’t tell if it’s meant as a specific kind of death or just death in general.

So I guess the real question is whether back in the 1980s or earlier, people ever said “So and so passed away in a flaming motorcycle wreck this afternoon, being pronounced dead at the scene.”

Last edited by SlackerInc; 10-05-2019 at 02:03 AM.
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Old 10-05-2019, 05:22 AM
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My understanding (and of course YMMV) is that the person PASSED, and then sometimes the add-ons were 'away peacefully', 'tragically' and 'unexpectedly' to denote old age/chronic illness, an accident (or suicide) and a sudden illness respectively.
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Old 10-05-2019, 06:22 AM
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My understanding was the complete opposite - once "passed away" had been firmly fixed as a euphemism for "died", people started abbreviating it to "passed", because the "away" was understood.

Looking at the ngram viewer results for the phrase is interesting. You do see individual people "passing away" as early as the nineteenth century, but that big bulge in the middle is mostly not that - it's a whole heap of Bible references ("heaven and earth had passed away"), plus "former generations" (rather than individuals) passing away, plus even quite mundane things like a person travelling to another town "passing away" by going down the road.
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Old 10-05-2019, 06:53 AM
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But you guys always understood it to include sudden and violent deaths? To me it is close to “faded away”.
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Old 10-05-2019, 07:14 AM
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I'm 61 and always associated the phrase with death by any means, peaceful or unpleasant.

"He passed away peacefully" or "She passed away after a long, hard battle with cancer" or "They passed away in the fire and collapse of the building" were all normal phrases.
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Old 10-05-2019, 07:33 AM
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But you guys always understood it to include sudden and violent deaths? To me it is close to “faded away”.
Yes, it's just something people say because they don't want to say "died". It has no connotations of a particular kind of death. IMO.
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Old 10-05-2019, 08:00 AM
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"Passed away" = "died", regardless of circumstances. In my life it has always meant this.
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Old 10-05-2019, 08:22 AM
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My take: there's sort of a taboo about the "d" word among some people. So euphemisms are used instead. "Passed away" is a very gentile way of putting it.

Also because of such superstition-like attitudes, discussing how a person went to meet their maker is to be avoided. So they are all lumped together.

Last edited by ftg; 10-05-2019 at 08:24 AM.
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Old 10-05-2019, 08:35 AM
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Looking at the ngram viewer results for the phrase is interesting. You do see individual people "passing away" as early as the nineteenth century, but that big bulge in the middle is mostly not that - it's a whole heap of Bible references ("heaven and earth had passed away"), plus "former generations" (rather than individuals) passing away, plus even quite mundane things like a person travelling to another town "passing away" by going down the road.
Off topic: How can you tell that from the Google ngram statistics? Is there a way to exclude certain texts (like, say, the Bible) from the corpus? Sorry, I'm kinda stupid about these things!
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Old 10-05-2019, 08:39 AM
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Delicate little ladies might get the vapors if you mentioned the D word. So you said "passed away". Later, behind closed doors, you might discreetly inquire about the cause of death.
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Old 10-05-2019, 09:11 AM
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To me is has always been a euphemism for any type of croaking.
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Old 10-05-2019, 09:30 AM
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Agreed that "passed away" just means "died." People say passed away because they want a euphemism to soft pedal the death. So, I might expect to hear, "she passed away last year" with no elaboration from someone who wants to spare me the details. If they were going to tell me, "she was doused in battery acid and gasoline, set on fire, and chucked into a wood chipper," saying she "passed away" isn't doing a lot of message softening so I wouldn't expect them to say passed away in the first place.
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Old 10-05-2019, 09:33 AM
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My understanding was the complete opposite - once "passed away" had been firmly fixed as a euphemism for "died", people started abbreviating it to "passed", because the "away" was understood....
This was my understanding, too.

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But you guys always understood it to include sudden and violent deaths? To me it is close to “faded away”.
Yes. I'm not quite as old as Qsdgop, but I have always interpreted it as a euphemism for any sort of death, peaceful, violent, whatever. I think it's meant to reference the moment the soul passes out of the body.
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Old 10-05-2019, 10:01 AM
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I don't want people saying I passed. I'm not Fran Tarkenton.
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Old 10-05-2019, 11:23 AM
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If someone said I passed, my friends would start snickering and making bean jokes.
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Old 10-05-2019, 12:07 PM
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Originally Posted by Qadgop the Mercotan View Post
I'm 61 and always associated the phrase with death by any means, peaceful or unpleasant.

"He passed away peacefully" or "She passed away after a long, hard battle with cancer" or "They passed away in the fire and collapse of the building" were all normal phrases.
What? Hard no on the last one, from this native English speaker. "Passed away" can be used for a violent death, but not if the violent circumstances are said in the same breath.

"Morgan passed away" (from a gunshot wound, but I don't want to talk about it) = ok
"Morgan got shot and immediately passed away" = not idiomatic
"Morgan got shot and one week later passed away in their hospital bed" = ok
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Old 10-05-2019, 02:35 PM
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Well, I'm 21 years older than Q t M and I don't think I heard it much when I was young and I never use it. The newspapers have a page labeled "deaths", not "passages".
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Old 10-05-2019, 03:41 PM
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In my mid-50's, always heard it as a euphemism for "died" and not a particular form of death.
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Old 10-05-2019, 03:41 PM
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I've noticed 'passed away' being used more frequently by the police when announcing deaths to the public.

Used to be you'd hear, "seven people were killed in the crash". Now, it's more like "seven people passed away" in it. Or, after a shooting, "seven people passed away after the sniper opened fire". I find this newer use almost jarring since, as the OP said, 'passed away' used to imply peacefully.

Maybe it's just a recent thing in Ontario.
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Old 10-05-2019, 03:44 PM
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My take: there's sort of a taboo about the "d" word among some people. So euphemisms are used instead. "Passed away" is a very gentile way of putting it.
So what's the Jewish way?
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Old 10-05-2019, 03:54 PM
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I've noticed 'passed away' being used more frequently by the police when announcing deaths to the public.

Used to be you'd hear, "seven people were killed in the crash". Now, it's more like "seven people passed away" in it. Or, after a shooting, "seven people passed away after the sniper opened fire". I find this newer use almost jarring since, as the OP said, 'passed away' used to imply peacefully.

Maybe it's just a recent thing in Ontario.
Could be unique to Ontario. I'm not aware of hearing any 'Official' announcements like the examples given. I have heard and read 'passed away' for as long as I can remember, but have noticed the use of 'passed' has been on the increase. Passed what? Go? Gas? cars in the slow lane?
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Old 10-05-2019, 06:02 PM
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So what's the Jewish way?
Well, I think he meant gentle, not gentile.

But saying 'passed' is really a way to stick a religious theistic claim into the conversion -- it says that the person has died, and then asserts they have passed on into some heaven/hell afterlife.
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Old 10-05-2019, 06:25 PM
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This was my understanding, too.

Yes. I'm not quite as old as Qsdgop, but I have always interpreted it as a euphemism for any sort of death, peaceful, violent, whatever. I think it's meant to reference the moment the soul passes out of the body.

Interesting. I was raised completely without religion, so that sense of the word would never have occurred to me when I was learning the English language.


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What? Hard no on the last one, from this native English speaker. “Passed away" can be used for a violent death, but not if the violent circumstances are said in the same breath.

"Morgan passed away" (from a gunshot wound, but I don't want to talk about it) = ok
"Morgan got shot and immediately passed away" = not idiomatic
"Morgan got shot and one week later passed away in their hospital bed" = ok

Aha, the plot thickens. Until I read this, I was ready to go with my having misinterpreted the meaning all along. But now I think the question still has legs. What I’m wondering now is if since it’s something people don’t necessarily want to talk about in great detail and there is no conflict in most cases, whether the phrase has undergone meaning creep over time. I guess it’s even slightly possible that it originally meant any kind of death because of the religious idea but that in a more secular society some people have begun to interpret it the way you and I do. But that seems less likely, because I just don’t remember it ever conflicting with my sense of the usage until more recent years.

Last edited by SlackerInc; 10-05-2019 at 06:27 PM.
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Old 10-05-2019, 06:39 PM
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Well, I think he meant gentle, not gentile.
Well, that's different. [Emily Litella]Never mind.[/Emily Litella]
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Old 10-05-2019, 11:39 PM
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To me is has always been a euphemism for any type of croaking.




Is “croaking” a euphemism for “kicking the bucket”?

I only ask, ‘cuz I wonder what they might say about me when I cash in my chips.
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Old 10-06-2019, 12:21 AM
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Is “croaking” a euphemism for “kicking the bucket”?

I only ask, ‘cuz I wonder what they might say about me when I cash in my chips.
Well, in this vein, the definitive reference on death euphemisms has this to add:
Quote:
'E's not pinin'! 'E's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed 'im to the perch 'e'd be pushing up the daisies! 'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig! 'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!
So, "passed on" rather than passed away.

I'm with others on this. "Passed away" or "passed on" was always an expression with religious overtones used to soft pedal someone's death, and one used to imply peaceable going. I find the current use of "passed" jarring to say the least. Here official pronouncements (ie from the police) tend to use the word "deceased", which is also jarring. People work hard to avoid the words "died" and "killed".
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Old 10-06-2019, 12:26 AM
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I don't know about this "passed away" or "passed".
When I grew up it was always "died".
I wonder if people are just sort of uncomfortable to say died, dead or death.
Just scared to be reminded of the inevitable.
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Old 10-06-2019, 12:29 AM
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Off topic: How can you tell that from the Google ngram statistics? Is there a way to exclude certain texts (like, say, the Bible) from the corpus? Sorry, I'm kinda stupid about these things!
I just go to the links down the bottom which are ordered by chunks of time, and start browsing around. You can get a vague sense, with a little sampling, of how words are evolving in meaning over the decades. It's not particularly scientific
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Old 10-06-2019, 09:02 AM
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Well, I think he meant gentle, not gentile.
Actually, I meant "genteel".
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Old 10-06-2019, 09:39 AM
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My understanding (and of course YMMV) is that the person PASSED, and then sometimes the add-ons were 'away peacefully', 'tragically' and 'unexpectedly' to denote old age/chronic illness, an accident (or suicide) and a sudden illness respectively.
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My understanding was the complete opposite - once "passed away" had been firmly fixed as a euphemism for "died", people started abbreviating it to "passed", because the "away" was understood.

Looking at the ngram viewer results for the phrase is interesting. You do see individual people "passing away" as early as the nineteenth century, but that big bulge in the middle is mostly not that - it's a whole heap of Bible references ("heaven and earth had passed away"), plus "former generations" (rather than individuals) passing away, plus even quite mundane things like a person travelling to another town "passing away" by going down the road.
I'm with Aspidistra here. The original euphemism for death is that a person "passed away." But my feeling is that the shortening to "passed" is not so much because the "away" is understood, but because, as euphemisms often do, "passed away" now means "died" so literally that people have become reluctant to say "passed away" for the same reason they're reluctant to say "died," so now "passed" is a euphemism for "passed away," which was a euphemism for "died."
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Old 10-06-2019, 09:44 AM
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I'm with Aspidistra here. The original euphemism for death is that a person "passed away." But my feeling is that the shortening to "passed" is not so much because the "away" is understood, but because, as euphemisms often do, "passed away" now means "died" so literally that people have become reluctant to say "passed away" for the same reason they're reluctant to say "died," so now "passed" is a euphemism for "passed away," which was a euphemism for "died."
That is my guess, as well.
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Old 10-06-2019, 10:35 AM
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I am a genteel (not gentile ) Jewish woman in my 50's, and passed away has always been my preferred term to use for death, because I find it less harsh than saying "died".

I have always used it for all deaths, whether peaceful or violent, with the idea being that however the person died, their soul or essence has now left their body and "passed away".

I also prefer to say that I'm going to use the restroom. Some of this I think came from my mother, who used a lot of euphemisms. Now that I'm an adult, I've realized that she did this around children, and that her normal language is a lot more colorful, to the point that it sometimes shocks me.
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Old 10-06-2019, 08:57 PM
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The OED has cites for "pass away": meaning to disappear; to dissolve; to cease to exist going back to about 1325, but they refer to things, not people.

From about 1400 there are cites for a sense referring to death, but initially they refer to the soul passing away, life passing away, etc. People don't start to pass away until about 1500.

"Pass over", meaning to die, goes back to the 17th century. The OED's first cite is the use of the term by Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress, and he employs it in a metaphor in which death is compared to passing over a river. It's a usage that became popular in American English in the late nineteenth century, under the influence of spiritualism.

The earliest cite for "pass", meaing to die, is from 1340, and there are cites from Shakespeare and Tennyson, but it's noted as "now chiefly North American and in Spiritualism".
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Old 10-26-2019, 12:40 AM
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I think this thread shouldn't close without mentioning the euphemism treadmill, which is the term Wikipedia uses. It's likely that the d-word will continue to decrease in frequency of use, perhaps "to pass" will broaden in meaning, then "pass" will provoke more hurtful emotional resonance in the heart of the person who hears it. Then people will begin to use other words for dying: "He skidaddled," "She dipped out," "They got tired of it," "They ain't here." Death, of course, is riper than any other topic to be euphemised, and creativity in its description is an immortal guarantee.
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Old 10-26-2019, 02:15 AM
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Is “croaking” a euphemism for “kicking the bucket”?

I only ask, ‘cuz I wonder what they might say about me when I cash in my chips.
  • That you bought the farm (or bought it),
  • That you are taking a dirt nap...?
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Old 10-26-2019, 02:44 AM
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In my mind, "passed away" implies a peaceful transition from life to death while reposing in a comfortable bed, possibly surrounded by your loved ones. Not while being riddled with bullets or being rendered into hamburger by a rampaging bull.
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Old 10-26-2019, 02:47 AM
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I think I'll stick with "Gorn to join the choir invisible".
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Old 10-26-2019, 09:11 AM
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I attended a Catholic high school from 1982 to 1986 and took a class called "Death and Dying." I distinctly remember the teacher telling us to never use the term "passed away" when someone died. He said to simply say they died. I'm not sure how valid his statement was, but to this day I always say "died."
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Old 10-26-2019, 10:23 AM
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I once told a co-worker whose first language was not English "I have to get a drink of water or I'll pass out." She replied "If you pass away I'm sending you home."

I just looked at her and finally said "I said pass OUT, not pass AWAY." And told all my other co-workers about it as "the funny of the day."
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Old 10-26-2019, 11:05 AM
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I always understood it (no cite) that the original expression was "passed on" shorthand for gone to the afterlife, as in "He has passed on to the next world" I.e. gone to heaven (we hope). Then they started using Passed and passed away as alternative ways to say "died".

I suppose it takes too long to say: (Note "passed on")
Quote:
Mr. Praline: 'E's not pinin'! 'E's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed 'im to the perch 'e'd be pushing up the daisies! 'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig! 'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!
I hear that when Colonel Sanders died, they had a "kick the bucket" sale.
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Old 10-26-2019, 11:12 AM
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I’ve told this story before, but I used to work with an online cancer support group. There was a young woman on the group whose young husband was dying of cancer. I suspect woman had heard the expression “ passed away” but had never seen it written.

Her last post to the group was titled My Husband Past Away. I always thought there was something touching and oddly appropriate in this construct, even though it was accidental.
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Old 10-26-2019, 01:58 PM
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Here is an example of the term "passed away" where a man was killed in an industrial accident while dismantling gas rigs. Definitely not limited to a quiet death in a peaceable setting.

http://www.hazardexonthenet.net/arti...-accident.aspx
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Old 10-26-2019, 02:39 PM
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I've noticed 'passed away' being used more frequently by the police when announcing deaths to the public.

Used to be you'd hear, "seven people were killed in the crash". Now, it's more like "seven people passed away
Were they on a two-lane road when the driver tried to get by slow traffic on a hill?
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Old 10-26-2019, 06:04 PM
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Originally Posted by Aspidistra View Post
Looking at the ngram viewer results for the phrase is interesting. You do see individual people "passing away" as early as the nineteenth century, but that big bulge in the middle is mostly not that - it's a whole heap of Bible references ("heaven and earth had passed away"), plus "former generations" (rather than individuals) passing away, plus even quite mundane things like a person travelling to another town "passing away" by going down the road.
In speech, which ngram doesn't index, even today pass away is by far most collocated with death by natural causes, such as "cancer," specific forms of cancer, or "heart attack."

If we exclude printed instances in obituaries, (which mechanically employ this expression in a formalized way), it tends to be used more in speech. Over all, though, it seems from a quick survey that pass away is most frequently used without mentioning the cause of death (passed away in his sleep, passed away at the age of XX, etc.) and I see no indication that this has changed since the 1990s.

In 1993, Howard Dean said on the PBS Newshour: "Carroll Campbell and I sat with the President and Ira Magaziner and the First Lady for almost a year now with Roy Roemer and George Wilson before he passed away in that plane crash."

In 2003, a CNN anchor said, " A reminder that John Holliman, unfortunately, passed away in a tragic car accident a few years ago, otherwise, he'd be with us, as well."

From looking over the data quickly (in COCA), it seems that collocations with a violent form of death tend to be when describing deaths having occurred further in the past. I would be curious to see which data or specific examples the OP is referring to that indicate any real change in the usage of pass away.
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Old 10-26-2019, 06:25 PM
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I'm with Aspidistra here. The original euphemism for death is that a person "passed away." But my feeling is that the shortening to "passed" is not so much because the "away" is understood, but because, as euphemisms often do, "passed away" now means "died" so literally that people have become reluctant to say "passed away" for the same reason they're reluctant to say "died," so now "passed" is a euphemism for "passed away," which was a euphemism for "died."
Right. This is known as the “euphemism treadmill.” The crippled-handicapped-disabled-whatever it is now sequence being the canonic example.
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Old 10-26-2019, 06:29 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ignotus View Post
Off topic: How can you tell that from the Google ngram statistics? Is there a way to exclude certain texts (like, say, the Bible) from the corpus? Sorry, I'm kinda stupid about these things!
Quote:
Originally Posted by Aspidistra View Post
I just go to the links down the bottom which are ordered by chunks of time, and start browsing around. You can get a vague sense, with a little sampling, of how words are evolving in meaning over the decades. It's not particularly scientific
Yes, Google Ngram is a nice resource, but if you really want to study usage, you need to use a real corpus, where each word is coded. Ngram only looks at books, so it doesn't track spoken language, which is its major inadequacy. It also doesn't allow you to search for collocations by word form, or do a cumulative search for lexemes. For example, if you're looking for instances of a term like drive (someone) crazy, you have to search for drive crazy, driving crazy, drove crazy, and has/had/have driven crazy all separately.

Also, with a corpus, you can sort out the newspapers from the magazines and speech, to see how many instances are in something like an obituary, where you kind of have to use the phrase pass away, as it's part of the discursive formula for that kind of publication.

On the other hand, the great value of Google Ngram is that it goes way back in history. Most corpora go back only to the 1990s. It all really depends upon the nature of the question you are researching.

Last edited by guizot; 10-26-2019 at 06:32 PM.
  #47  
Old 10-26-2019, 07:34 PM
guizot is offline
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Here is a search for noun forms that collocate 1-3 positions after passed away, broken down by spoken language, newspapers, magazines, academic and fiction, disaggregated by the last three decades. "Accident" is #16 in frequency. I don't see any other words which would indicate violent forms of death.

The first word following was set to a preposition wildcard, so it included phrases like:
passed away from . . .
passed away in . . .
passed away during . . .
etc.

This is a corpus of 560 million words from 1990 to 2017, equally divided among spoken, fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, and academic texts.
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