The Macabre Origins of 10 Death-Related Idioms
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 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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.