The Macabre Origins of 10 Death-Related Idioms

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iStock.com/wwing

In 2016, Chapman University conducted a survey of 1511 Americans to gauge their concern over common fears, including crime, natural disasters, and clowns. Predictably, the notion of death was on the minds of many. Roughly 38 percent of respondents said that the idea of a loved one dying made them afraid or very afraid. Approximately 19 percent feared their own death.

That last statistic may speak less to fear of dying than our preference to simply not think about it. We often obscure or obfuscate our own mortality by ignoring it, joking about it, or cloaking it in a way that allows us to avoid confronting the reality that our bodies have expiration dates. For centuries, idioms have allowed us to dance around the topic, trading euphemisms for blunt language. Take a look at some of the more common expressions for death and their possible origins.

1. BUYING THE FARM

A scarecrow appears in a field
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A person who has ceased to be is sometimes said to have "bought the farm." This agricultural expression may have roots in the plight of military pilots in the 20th century. If a fighter jet crashed on a farm, the farm owner could theoretically sue the government for damages. In a roundabout way, the settlement might pay for the farmland, with the expired pilot having "bought" the property. Alternatively, the pilot's family might receive an insurance payment sufficient to pay off their farm mortgage. Another theory? The phrase stemmed from the idea of "the farm" as slang for a burial plot; "bought it" is also an older slang term for died.

2. DEAD AS A DOORNAIL

A door features a knocker and doornails
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Why would anyone associate someone's health—or lack thereof—with carpentry? The earliest usage of someone being "dead as a doornail" dates to a 1350 translation of the anonymous 12th-century French poem Guillaume de Palerne. William Shakespeare used it in Henry VI, Part 2, written around 1591, and Charles Dickens in 1843's A Christmas Carol, writing that "Old Marley was as dead as a door nail," then going on to explain (via the narrator) that he wasn't quite sure why it wouldn't be "coffin nail" thanks to its status as "the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade." One possible explanation is that wooden doors were often secured with nails that were hammered through and then bent on the protruding side for added strength. Once this process, called "clenching," was performed, the nail was basically useless for any other purpose. The idiom may also refer to the effort involved in driving the nail through the door. Struck with blunt force by a hammer, the nail was effectively "dead" from the trauma.

3. CROSSING THE RAINBOW BRIDGE

A rainbow appears over the ocean
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A forlorn announcement of a pet's passing sometimes includes mention of the beloved animal "crossing the rainbow bridge." While the phrase is common on social media, its origins date to the pre-Facebook 1980s. Three authors have all claimed to have written a poem using the language, which refers to a mythical connection between heaven and Earth. On the crossing, pet and owner are said to be reunited. The idea of a rainbow-colored crossing may have stemmed from Norse mythology and the Bifröst bridge, which connected Midgard and Asgard.

4. SIX FEET UNDER

A tombstone appears over a grave
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As idioms go, this one is rather pointed. To die is to often be buried six feet underground. But why six feet? Blame the plague. In 1665, when the illness swept England, London's Lord Mayor ordered that corpses be buried no less than six feet deep in an effort to help limit the spread of the pestilence that eventually took more than an estimated 100,000 lives. There is no such regulation today, and graves can be as shallow as four feet.

5. PUSHING UP THE DAISIES

A daisy is seen in a graveyard
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This gardening-related euphemism takes a pleasant visual (daisies) to soften the subject (the rotting corpse residing underneath). The earliest incarnation of the phrase may have been to "turn one's toes to the daisies." A version appears in the story "The Babes in the Wood," in Richard Harris Barham's Ingoldsby Legends folklore collection of the 1840s, which used the expression "be kind to those dear little folks/When our toes are turned up to the daisies." Another variation, "I shall very soon hide my name under some daisies," was used by Scottish author George MacDonald in 1866.

6. BITE THE DUST

A dusty surface is pictured
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As much as Queen may deserve credit for popularizing the phrase ("Another One Bites the Dust"), they didn't coin it. The idea of sudden death resulting in a body collapsing into dust has origins that date back far earlier. "Lick the dust" can be traced to Psalms 72 of the King James version of the Bible ("They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him and his enemies shall lick the dust"), which actually sounds quite a bit more menacing. Translator Tobias Smollett used the altered "bite" version in the French novel The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane, originally published by Alain-René Lesage between 1715 and 1735. It also appears in a 19th-century English translation of Homer's Iliad, though it's hard to ascertain whether the phrase should be attributed to Homer or to translator Samuel Butler.

7. KICK THE BUCKET

A bucket sits on top of a crate
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Of all the verbal contortions to get around saying "this person has died," few are more ambiguous than "kick the bucket." One common—and very morbid—explanation is that a person committing suicide may opt to hang themselves by standing on a platform before kicking it away, creating tension on the rope around their neck. To achieve death, they have to literally kick the bucket. This presumes "bucket" was ever slang for a stool, or that it was the only handy stand-in for one. It's more likely the phrase stems from another definition of bucket. In 16th-century England, bucket also meant a yoke or frame from which to hang something. If an animal was being hung up for slaughter, it might kick the frame, or bucket, in an effort to free itself, or in a spasm after death.

8. SHUFFLING OFF THIS MORTAL COIL

A coil is seen in close-up
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This romanticized phrase is another of Shakespeare's contributions to the lexicon of death. In 1602's Hamlet, he wrote, "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause." At the time, coile or coil meant fuss, making the phrase a reference to leaving behind mortal turmoil.

9. LAID OUT IN LAVENDER

Lavender is spread out on a blank surface
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Another seemingly pleasant descriptor, to be "laid out in lavender" is to prepare a body for viewing or burial, presumably by using a pleasant smell to mask the foul odor of decomposition. The idiom takes a cue from "laid up in lavender," or the practice of storing clothes in lavender to keep them from being damaged by insects. The phrase denoting death may have first appeared in a 1926 story in the Syracuse Herald newspaper, with a book reviewer noting that a detective story featured a family "laid out in lavender."

10. SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES

A woman sleeps next to a fish
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A staple of both mob stories and parodies of mob stories, to "sleep with the fishes" is to hint that a rival has been murdered and possibly tossed into a body of water. Luca Brasi famously met this fate in 1972's The Godfather. But the phrase can be dated back to 1836 and to German villagers who wanted to warn off a fly fisherman. As Edmund Spencer describes in Sketches of Germany and the Germans, the villagers threatened the man with violence, an act Spencer worded as a warning that "he would sleep with the fishes." And, yes, fish do sleep, though not in any conventional sense. Without eyelids to droop, they tend to relax their tails and enter a state of reduced arousal.

Thursday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Guitar Kits, Memory-Foam Pillows, and Smartwatches

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 3. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

25 Facts About Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s Wedding

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer married at St Paul’s Cathedral in London on Wednesday, July 29, 1981. The ceremony was one of the decade’s biggest events—and for good reason. Queen Elizabeth II’s eldest son Charles was (and still is, of course) first in line to the throne, which made the day a landmark moment in the life of the presumptive future King of England.

With the early days of Charles and Diana’s relationship now immortalized in Netflix’s The Crown, here are some more facts and figures behind one of the 20th century’s most famous relationships.

1. Prince Charles met Diana while he was dating her sister.

Prince Charles and Sarah Spencer (right, facing camera) on the sidelines after he played in an international polo match, July 1977. Dennis Oulds/Central Press, Getty Images

Charles was romantically involved with Diana’s elder sister, Sarah Spencer (now Lady Sarah McCorquodale) when he first met his future bride-to-be. His and Sarah’s relationship wasn’t quite as harmonious as it’s portrayed in The Crown; Sarah later said that she wouldn’t marry Charles whether “he were the dustman or the King of England." Nevertheless, it’s through Sarah that Charles was first introduced to Diana while on a grouse hunt at Althorp House, the Spencer family's ancestral home, in 1977. Diana was just 16 at the time—six years younger than Sarah, and more than 12 years younger than Charles.

2. It was love at first sight for Charles and Diana …

Charles seems to have taken an immediate shine to Diana, telling The Daily Telegraph in 1981 that he remembered thinking, “what a very jolly and amusing and attractive 16-year-old she was” after they first met. For her part, Diana reportedly told friends that she was destined to marry Charles after her first encounter with him—adding (not so prophetically) that “he’s the one man on the planet who’s not allowed to divorce me.” (Divorce laws for royals used to be a lot more stringent than they are today, and weren’t fully relaxed until 2002.)

3. … or maybe it wasn’t love at first sight for Charles and Diana.

Long after their relationship had broken down, Diana revisited her first impression of Charles—this time with the benefit of hindsight. In 1992, she told her biographer Andrew Morton that her actual first thought after meeting the future king was, “God, what a sad man.” Ouch.

4. It took a while for things to get going between Charles and Diana.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

No matter what their first impressions were, it took a long time for Charles and Diana to become a couple. It wasn’t until 1980, shortly before Diana’s 19th birthday, that the couple finally got together. In the three years in between, Charles’s relationship with Sarah Spencer fizzled out, after which he reportedly proposed to Amanda Knatchbull, the granddaughter of Earl Mountbatten, his mentor. Knatchbull turned him down.

At the same time, rumors began swirling that Charles was still romantically involved with his long-term sweetheart Camilla Shand, despite her having married Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles in 1973. (Camilla is now the Duchess of Cornwall, Charles's second wife. The couple tied the knot in 2005.)

Charles had, in fact, intended to propose to Camilla years earlier, but their relationship crumbled when the royal family allegedly deemed her an unsuitable match for the heir to the throne.

5. Prince Charles’s schedule often got in the way of his courtship with Diana.

The problem with being heir to the world’s most powerful monarchy is that it doesn’t leave you a lot of time for romance. Reportedly, Charles and Diana only met in person, at most, 13 times before Charles proposed on February 3, 1981.

6. Charles did get down on one knee when he proposed to Diana.

Charles proposed to Diana in the nursery of Windsor Castle. Unlike what is stated in The Crown, Charles apparently did get down on one knee to ask for Diana's hand. (Also unlike The Crown, Diana’s immediate reaction was apparently to laugh.) The engagement was kept a secret for three weeks while arrangements for an official announcement were made; their betrothal wasn’t made public until February 24, 1981.

7. Diana picked out her own engagement ring (and it’s still in the family).

Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge in 2014.Ricky Wilson, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Charles didn’t pick out a ring for Diana; rather, Diana picked her own from a selection made by Garrard & Co., the official Jewelers to the Crown, The ring she chose—an 18-carat white gold band featuring a Ceylon sapphire surrounded by 14 diamonds—is now worn by Prince William’s wife Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge. Nevertheless, it proved a controversial choice: because the ring came from the Garrard’s public catalogue, it wasn’t a unique bespoke design which many in the royal family believed would have been more suitable.

8. Charles and Diana’s wedding was hastily arranged.

Charles and Diana had only been dating for around six months by the time Charles popped the question in February 1981, and it took barely another five months to arrange the big day—they were wed in July 1981.

9. Charles and Diana’s rehearsal dinner was almost as big as the main event.

Prince Charles, President Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, and Princess Diana pose for photos before a dinner in 1985.White House — Ronald Reagan Presidential Library // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The couple held a rehearsal ceremony at St Paul’s two days before the big day, then headed back to Buckingham Palace for a lavish celebratory dinner and party. The Queen hosted the event, which was attended by 1400 invited guests. Alongside dignitaries and famous faces like the First Lady, Nancy Reagan, the list of rehearsal dinner invitees also included many of the palace’s staff, who had been in the couple’s service throughout their relationship.

10. The rehearsal dinner was big, but Charles and Diana’s wedding was still bigger.

A congregation of 3500 people were invited to St. Paul’s Cathedral for the royal couple's wedding day, with more than 2 million well-wishers lining the streets of London outside—and a further 750 million people believed to have tuned in from home to watch the events on television, in more than 60 different countries. The broadcast remains one of the biggest television events in history for a non-sporting event.

11. There were almost as many musicians as guests at Charles and Diana’s wedding.

There were three separate choirs and a further three orchestras arranged inside St. Paul’s Cathedral for the ceremony, including the British Philharmonia Orchestra, the English Chamber Orchestra, and the entire orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Add to that the official fanfare ensemble of the Royal Military School—plus the New Zealand operative soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who sang Handel’s Let The Bright Seraphim as part of the ceremony—and you’ve got almost as many musicians in attendance as invited guests.

12. Charles and Diana’s guest list was suitably impressive.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret ThatcherHulton Archive/Getty Images

Besides the immediate royal family—plus Diana’s family, the Earl and Countess Spencer—among those also invited to the wedding were then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her husband; President Mitterrand of France; countless other European and Commonwealth heads of state; royal representatives from the monarchies of Japan, Jordan, Nepal, and Thailand; and a select handful of more personal invitees, including Prince Charles’s favorite comedians, Spike Milligan and Sir Harry Secombe, and the staff and parents of the nursery Diana had worked at before she began dating Charles.

13. Charles and Diana did have a few notable no-shows at their wedding.

Famously, King Juan Carlos of Spain declined his invite because the couple’s honeymoon plans included an overnight stay in Gibraltar, which has long been the subject of a territorial disagreement with the UK. Patrick Hillery, the president of Ireland, also stayed home in protest over the status of Northern Ireland. And while his First Lady was in attendance, President Reagan wasn't able to attend the wedding as he was scheduled to chair an economic summit in Ottawa the previous day (though it’s been speculated that he actually snubbed it because he didn’t want his first official visit to Europe as president to be a purely social one).

14. Charles was related to a lot of the people attending.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Thanks to many of Queen Victoria’s nine children and 42 grandchildren marrying into most of Europe’s other royal dynasties—lending her the title of “Grandmother of Europe”—today almost all of Europe’s royal family trees are all intertwined. (Incredibly, Diana was the first ordinary British citizen in 300 years to marry an heir to the throne.) So on his wedding day, Charles—as one of the foremost figures in the British House of Windsor—was related to most of the other royals in attendance. The King of Norway, Olav V, was his first cousin twice removed; Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands was his fifth cousin once removed; Prince George Valdemar of Denmark was his second cousin once removed; King Baudouin of Belgium was his third cousin once removed, as was King Carl XVI of Sweden. And both the deposed King Michael I of Romania and his wife, Queen Anne of Romania, were Charles’s second cousins. Even Charles and Diana were related—albeit distantly: Both were descendants of Henry VII, which made them sixteenth cousins once removed.

15. Diana reportedly liked watching herself on TV.

On the morning of the wedding, Diana’s dressing room at the palace was a flurry of excitement. But in the midst of it all, Diana was oddly quiet—and was reportedly mesmerized by watching herself on television. According to bridesmaid India Hicks, “there was a small television on the side of this dressing table, and Diana was seated in front of it ... dressed in her jeans.” If any of the dressers, designers, bridesmaids, florists, hairdressers, or make-up artists who were in the room got in the way of the screen, Diana would shoo them away, “because, obviously, she was very excited to see herself on television.” It was only when the commercial break came on that Diana finally began to dress for her big day.

16. Diana’s wedding dress stole the show.

While Charles wore his traditional full-dress naval commander uniform, Diana wore an ivory-colored taffeta wedding gown, decorated with handmade lace and finished off with 10,000 hand-sewn pearls and a 25-foot silk train. The dress was the work of designers Elizabeth and David Emanuel, while Diana’s shoes—a bespoke, low-heeled pair of wedding slippers (low-heeled so that no one could tell she and Charles were both 5’ 10”)—were designed by shoemaker Clive Shilton, who personally adorned them with a further 542 sequins and another 132 pearls. (It took Shilton about six months to make the shoes.)

The designers all added a number of personal touches to Diana’s outfit, too. The Emanuels (a favorite designer of Diana's) sewed a diamond-encrusted horseshoe and a secret blue ribbon into the lining of her dress for good luck, and Shilton hand-painted a hidden “C” and a “D” onto the arches of her shoes. The designers were prepped for everything, too: In case it rained on the big day, they had prepared a lace-trimmed ivory parasol to shield the bride from the worst of the British weather.

17. Diana’s wedding dress broke all sorts of records.

Diana and the Emanuels (who were compelled to install a safe in their studio to keep their designs secret ahead of the big day) are said to have intentionally wanted her bridal gown to have the longest train of any royal gown in history—and they reportedly broke the previous record by a full 60 inches. In fact, Diana’s silk train proved too long to comfortably manage at home, forcing the Emanuels to eventually relocate from their studio to a seldom-used wing of Buckingham Palace to unroll, measure and construct the enormous garment in full. Though it was the train that stole all the headlines, that wasn’t even the dress’s biggest extravagance: Diana’s veil was made from a single 153-yard length of white tulle.

18. Diana had a dress disaster just before the wedding.

The French perfumiers at Houbigant (the oldest fragrance company in all of France) created a special perfume just for Diana's wedding day, which they called Quelques Fleur. Unfortunately, while getting ready Diana for the ceremony, Diana spilled some of the perfume on the front of her dress. She can be seen covering the stain with her hand in some of the wedding footage from that day.

19. Diana messed up Charles’s name while reciting their wedding vows.

Princess Diana wearing what she called her "Elvis dress" on a visit to Hong Kong in 1989.Georges De Keerle/Getty Images

Unfortunately, Diana's perfume disaster wasn't the only gaffe of the day. While reciting her vows, Diana famously muddled up the order of Charles’s full name, calling him “Philip Charles Arthur George” instead of “Charles Philip Arthur George.” In return, Charles fluffed his lines too, referring to “thy goods” rather than “my worldly goods” in his nuptials.

20. Diana refused to say she'd "obey" Charles in her wedding vows, which started a new royal tradition.

The Anglican Book of Common Prayer has provided the basis of the Church of England’s traditional wedding vows (whether royal or not) since the 17th century—and it’s this book that includes the famous line, “to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part." Diana, however, left out the “obey” part of that line in her wedding vows, prompting some eagle-eyed viewers at the time to assume it was just another nervous mistake. Not so, as it was later revealed that the couple (with the backing of the Dean of Westminster himself) had mutually agreed to ditch the “obey” part of the ceremony, arguing that it was outdated thinking.

When it was revealed that the line had been intentionally removed, the couple’s decision caused a sensation. Nevertheless, it has since become a tradition, with both Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle omitting the word obey from their vows in 2011 and 2018, respectively.

21. Charles and Diana’s post-wedding breakfast was a much smaller affair than their wedding ceremony.

Of the nearly 4000 guests invited to the ceremony, barely 100 were invited back to Buckingham Palace for a private wedding breakfast after the event.

22. Charles and Diana’s kiss on the Buckingham Palace balcony established a new tradition.

AdrianHancu/iStock Editorial via Getty Images Plus

Charles and Diana appeared on the famous front balcony of Buckingham Palace just after 1 p.m. and their wedding day and delighted the enormous crowds below with an impromptu kiss. Kissing on the balcony has since become a traditional high point of all royal wedding days, maintained right up to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's wedding in 2018.

23. Charles and Diana had 27 wedding cakes.

A number of high-profile chefs and patisseries were asked to produce cakes for the wedding, including Food Network regular Nicholas Lodge and legendary Belgian pastry chef SG Sender (known as the “Cakemaker of the Kings,” due to the number of European royal weddings he was involved in). In total, some 27 different cakes were baked for the occasion—although the official wedding cake was made by David Avery, the head baker of the Royal Naval School of Cookery. Reportedly, Avery spent 14 weeks preparing the cake, which was a 5-foot tall, tiered fruitcake that weight 225 pounds. In fact, Avery made two cakes (in case one got damaged) so, really, there was really 28 cakes.

24. Some of Charles and Diana’s wedding gifts were quite unusual.

What do you get the couple who (truly) has everything? How about one ton of high-quality West Country peat? At least, that’s what a local village in the English county of Somerset decided to send to the royal couple to celebrate their big day, so that Charles could use the peat to fertilize the gardens on his new Gloucestershire estate, Highgrove House. Besides a host of gold and silverware, jewelry, antique furniture, and priceless art, some of the couple’s other wedding gifts included two four-poster beds, a carpet, a silver mousetrap, a case of Scottish whisky, a first edition of The Complete English Traveller (1771), a 100-year-old set of antique silk mittens, a $20,000 fully-equipped kitchen, and a handmade paperweight created from the same limestone used to build the Tower of London.

25. Charles and Diana’s marriage may not have lasted, but their wedding day was a triumph.

While Diana famously came to (understandably) take very different view of her wedding day, at the time, to her and everyone else involved it was a triumph. “It was heaven, amazing, wonderful, though I was so nervous when I was walking up the aisle that I swore my knees would knock and make a noise," Diana proclaimed of the day. As for Charles? He confessed to a cousin that, "There were several times when I was perilously close to crying from the sheer joy of it all."