Doctors and the “D” Word —

That’s the title of a valuable essay by Danielle Ofri, MD, in a recent New York Times Science and Health Section:

“We doctors, ” she says, “are just as terrified of death as any other human being scurrying around this little planet. And like any other human, we use euphemism to shield us from that fear.”

But doctors, she explains, are more constrained by their profession, in which the euphemism of choice is “Expired” — as in magazine subscriptions, old passports, and milk cartons.

And then she tells about the first time she heard the expression “passed” — from an intern who came up to New York from below the Mason-Dixon line, where, turns out,  it’s as common as, well, as death itself.


Passing what? Makes me think of a once much-admired poem called Crossing the Bar (no, not the law exam) in which Tennyson means exactly the same thing as the euphemism “passing”, although he takes the metaphor and term from sailing.

Growing up in an overwhelmingly Jewish area of Brooklyn,  I, like Ofri, had never heard that expression until well into adult years. In Brooklyn we pretty much heard either “dead” or “Sssssh”. Living now in New England, though, I hear it a lot, it isn’t only Southern, and I think it’s odd every time I hear it.

The anecdote and poem that Ofri ends with is both an illumination, and a joy (you may need a little attitude adjustment, but take my word for it, it’s more a delight than a downer). Do read the essay! Here’s a second chance for you at the link, if you passed it up the first time.

This entry was posted in Health, Medicine, Personal Essay, Poetry and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Doctors and the “D” Word —

  1. David Elpern says:

    Thanks. I read this last May. Danielle Ofri is a talented writer. I brought her to Williams ~ 7 – 8 years ago and the students enjoyed her energy.


  2. Rebekah says:

    Wonderful article — I’m glad I clicked that link.

    Growing up in very secularized Sweden … living most of my life there, it was mostly «died/dead». Not too many fancy euphemisms there. Worked in the medical field, and was of course familiar with all that talk, like ‘lower extremities’ instead of legs and so on. It often struck me that it perhaps was an attempt to … ‘de-personalize’ ourselves from the patients by saying stuff like «hey…put the varicella in room 10».

    We’ll all pass the final examination … that’s about the only thing we can be certain of 🙂


  3. What a neat take to put in the commencement speech. Thank you for linking us to it.

    I grew up in the Midwest. The term “passed on” was as common, if not more so, than death.


  4. Joss says:

    In France they use ‘disappeared’ instead of died. That took me a while to get my mind around. What do you mean she disappeared? The one I find the most strange though is ‘lost’ as in ‘that was the year I lost my father”. You lost him? well, geez, get out there and look for him and find him. We have such a hard time saying someone died perhaps because we know, in our hearts, that death is not the end and so we attempt to communicate that with words like lost or disappear or passed.


    • Touch2Touch says:

      I didn’t know the French euphemism. It seems more acceptable to me — but that could just be because it’s less familiar.
      I’m certainly with you on “lost” — the absurdity glares.
      As for whether it’s belief or denial — hmmmmm, perhaps some of each??


  5. Pseu says:

    Interesting. I wonder if there is a cultural difference between America and UK? I don’t think expired is used as much here. The term RIP is often used or deceased.
    An example of the many terms available as euphemisms:


    • Touch2Touch says:

      What an example! You nailed it, Pseu. You’d better believe there’s a cultural difference!
      The Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch (which lays me out whenever I get to watch it) is a wonderful example! I don’t think in a million years you’d find quite the same sardonic approach to death in the US. Saturday Night Live could be really funny and irreverent, but this sketch, and its use of language play — to me is quintessentially British.


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