Grave School: Here Are The Origins of Your Favorite Terms for Death and Dying

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Death: the universe’s metal song. Since its inception, heavy metal has been fascinated with death and dying, as our final departure from this mortal coil is an odd mixture of ugly realism and cosmic symbolism. But there are only so many times one can write lyrics with dead, death, and died in them, and so metal musicians have long plumbed their thesauruses looking for new terms for the big sleep. Now, thankfully, one resource is here to help headbangers around the world, and get this, it’s fuckin’ PBS.

The lesson comes via Otherwords, a new PBS webseries in which one Dr. Erica Brozovsky, Ph. D, examines the history of commonly-used phrases and terms. This time around, Dr. Brozovsky has decided to examine the most controversial verbal topic of them all: death.

“The words death, die, and dead are all likely derived from the proto-European root dheu, which meant to die, faint, or vanish,” explains Dr. Brozovsky. “It’s also where we get the world funeral, but if you’re actually at a funeral, you probably wouldn’t use any of these words. It just feels too blunt to say, ‘Sorry he’s dead.’ When discussing topics that are sensitive and taboo, people often employ euphemisms — words or phrases in place of direct terms in order to spare feelings, avoid embarrassment, or even out of superstition. And when it comes to sensitive or taboo topics, none is as universally avoided or as universally unavoidable as death.”

Dr. Brozovsky then goes on to explain the historical and geographical roots of and/or variations on the most common terms for death or dying, including:

  • “no longer with us” — Has roots in Mandarin Chinese, which has a phrase meaning “already not here.”
  • “with God now” — Egyptian Arabic has a term which means “had Allah take their soul.”
  • “passed away” or “crossed over” — In China, there’s a term that means “fly on a crane to the western paradise,” while Ancient Greeks referred to “crossing the River Styx.”
  • “crossing the rainbow bridge” — Commonly used for pets, likely referencing the Bifrost Bridge of Norse mythology.
  • “left the building” — What announcers would tell rabid Elvis fans to keep them from hanging around all night to meet the King.
  • “popped his clogs” — A popular term in the UK meaning one has pawned their shoes, because they won’t be needing them anymore.
  • “pushing up daisies” — Probably related to the Dutch term “looking at daisies from below.”
  • “kick the bucket” — Might reference kicking the bucket out from under a criminal to get them hanging, but more likely refers to the buquet, which is the scaffold a slaughtered animal would hang from.

Dr. Brozovsky also talks about dysphemisms, purposefully blunt terms to keep from sugarcoating something (“take the dirt nap,” for example), which will probably be where metalheads get most into this topic.

Check out the full video here and enjoy mining it for awesome song titles:


Words by Chris Krovatin