8 synonyms for ‘dying’
On 2 November, Mexico observes the Dia de los Muertos, or ‘Day of the Dead’ – a commemoration with prayers for the souls of the dead. Despite the bleak focus, it is a joyous celebration with dancing and colourful skulls, which sets it apart from the more solemn remembrance of All Souls’ Day that is held in other parts of the world on the same date. A look at the language related to death reveals an equally stark contrast: synonyms for dying range from the gloomily sombre to the morbidly funny – here are a few of them:
push up daisies
First attested in the early 1840s, the slang phrase to push up daisies is one of the more macabre euphemisms for dying, as it vividly conjures the image of a dead body lying in an earthly grave. Variations of this particular expression can also be found in other languages: the French manger les pissenlits par la racine literally means ‘to eat dandelions by the root’, while the German equivalent sich die Radieschen von unten ansehen translates to ‘to view the radishes from below’.
As well as its more well-known meaning ‘to make or become stiff’, the verb can also be used in the sense ‘to die’. In John Hamilton Reynolds’ The Fancy, the undertaker Hatband tells King Tims: “I wish’d you’d stiffen—that I might enclose Your royal limbs, and measure to the toes.”
meet one’s Maker
Maker has been used as a synonym for God since the mid-14th century, but the expression to meet one’s Maker is, perhaps surprisingly, more recent. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) credits Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1933 mystery novel Murder Must Advertise with the first use of the euphemism. While reviewing the crime scene, Chief-Inspector Parker, annoyed by the lack of clues on the dead man’s body, remarks: “The wretched man had gone to meet his Maker in Farley’s Footwear”.
The Scots form of lack, inlaik, also spelt as enlaike, was used in the sense ‘to fail through death; to decease’ until the 19th century. The OED cites Practicks: or, a System of the more ancient law of Scotland by James Balfour as a first example of usage: “It micht happin the witnessis to deceis or inlaik”.
kick the bucket
To kick the bucket has been around as a colloquial expression for to die since at least 1785. Bucket here is not, as most people imagine, the vessel to carry things, but rather a different word defined by the OED as ‘a beam or yoke on which anything may be hung or carried’. The phrase probably refers to the beam on which a slaughtered pig was suspended by its heels, as David Crystal notes in Words in Time and Place.
Bung comes from Yagara, an extinct Aboriginal language, and can mean ‘broken down or ruined‘ and ‘banrupt’, as well as ‘dead’. In parts of Australia and New Zealand, go bung is an informal expression for ‘to die’ which can also be used in the senses ‘to fail’ and ‘to go bankrupt’.
The verb zonk, coming from the onomatopoeic interjection, representing the sound of a blow or heavy impact, is another synonym for ‘to die‘. The OED sense includes a quotation from a Listener article from 1968: “If Johnny zonked, it would be bad for my book.”
take the ferry
Ferry is used in various figurative expressions alluding to death, including to take the ferry. The allusion is to the boat in which the ferryman Charon transported the spirits of the dead to the underworld in classical mythology.