Popular legend — though not most academic linguists — has it that the Inuit people have 50 words for snow. Why? Because when something is such a big part of life, people develop a more sophisticated vocabulary to talk about its nuances.
The same is true for the English language and the plethora of words we have for the word “rain”, from drizzle and mizzle to downpour.
But the argument that vocabulary increases when talking about a life’s phenomenon breaks down around death.
A recent Marie Curie survey reminds us there are more than 50 different euphemisms or ways of talking about someone “kicking the bucket” without having to actually use “death” or “died” or anything etymologically related to it.
Unlike weather descriptors, which give us a greater capacity for articulation, the vast death vocabulary we have is a way of shielding ourselves and each other from much-needed conversations.
The Talmud contains numerous examples of deaths where another phrase is used to describe what has happened.
He “departed this world” or “his soul left his body” are particular rabbinic favourites.
What differentiates these from phrases like “took her last bow” is that although they are also euphemistic, they represent an opportunity to explore beliefs around death — because they describe something that the word ‘death’ simply doesn’t.
In these cases, they give someone the image of a world beyond this one, or provoke a conversation about the life of the soul.
A teacher in rabbinical school told us about a child whose parent had explained they had “lost” their relative. They later found out the child had become terrified of being separated from their family when out for the day in case they became lost too.
Unlike the Talmudic phrases, the word “loss” is a good example of a euphemism which doesn’t expand meaning, and could potentially confuse or even suggest that people who are bereaved didn’t care enough to “hold on” to their loved ones.
A wide vocabulary around death is needed — not so that we can avoid saying the words, but rather that we can discuss the nuances of emotion and experience that accompany this part of life.
Deborah Blausten is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College