I was watching a YouTube program on how Sesame Street broke a taboo to tell children that Mr. Hooper died when the actor who played the popular character had died and would no longer appear in his store. As the YouTube account cut to a clip where Mr. Hooper’s son told Big Bird that “Mr. Hooper died,” the closed-caption text said “Mr. Hooper passed.” Twice more in ten minutes, voices on clips from the past said “died” and the text on the bottom of the screen said “passed”.
The app producing the closed-caption text had been programed to substitute “passed” whenever a speaker said “died”. Why did it do that?
It seems the taboo has returned in our time.
I have been noticing how infrequently death is mentioned in on-line chats and even in newscasts.
It is my impression that “dead, died, death” are almost never used to refer to a particular individual. Even impersonal references talk of “casualties” and “victims” whenever possible.
I confess to being a bit mystified by the current use of “passed”. “He passed.” Not even “passed away”. There is an insistence about it that includes people across a broad theological spectrum.
The summer I became a professional writer (a cub reporter for our local newspaper) my editor-mentor told me, “Say ‘died’ in those obituaries.” Mr. Ridgeway was a no-nonsense editor. Clarity and accuracy were required in a newspaper of record which he believed was the job of a local newspaper. That, however, was decades ago.
I don’t know how this use of “passed” is fast becoming one of those linguistic trends that require conformity. So I asked my Facebook friends and got a few responses.
An Episcopal deacon responded, “… if one thinks of our life here as a journey, the term ‘passed’ or ‘passed on’ emphasizes a passage to the greater life (or a different existence), rather than death, which signals a finality and an end. I’ve heard objection to ‘she passed’ as if it is some kind of denial. Not for me….”
A Russian linguist commented, “Passed is more metaphorical, not so direct. Almost the same as calling a toilet a bathroom.”
A sociologist from the Philippines wondered, “”Fear of death? Death as a bad word?”
An American pastor responded, “ ‘Jesus passed for our sins.’ Nope. Not. No.”
An American Christian colleague commented, “There is a biblical basis for Christian use of the term as death represents a transition of states.”
A journalist friend observed, “In contemporary terms, it seems to me that people are afraid to speak of death and dying, as it cannot and will not happen to themselves. When I see the term [“passed”] I often think that those who use it are unwilling or unable to face the reality of death.”
My son-in-law from Tennessee said, “I know that it is a Southern euphemism and has always been the preferred way to refer to ‘a passing’ in the South.”
An immigrant to Australia remembered, “At school, we used to say, He kicked the bucket.”
I am grateful for these comments, but I still don’t know where this shift is coming from, although I’m quite sure we’re more direct and less ambiguous about death here in Northern Thai villages. Perhaps it’s too soon to know why the Internet world is so circumspect, but I sense pressure behind a trend that will eventually make “he died” thought of as insensitive and then incorrect.
I think I’ll have died by then.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.