Monday, December 1, 2008

Euphemisms and Misnomers

At a gathering recently, mentioning someone's wake that was upcoming, a friend blurted out, "Doesn't that term come from the superstition that someone could "wake" up, having been mispronounced dead?" As the supposed expert on death lore, all turned to me for the answer...which I really didn't know. Thus, a post was born. I thought we could look at some common phrases we use and find out what's really behind it all.

Let's start with the Wake Ceremony. This is a time before the burial that friends and family gather. Originally in the home of the deceased, though now often in funeral homes and churches. Although sometimes only a viewing, it is often a mixture of mourning and celebrating the life of the deceased. Why do we call it a "Wake"? The word derives from anglo-saxon origins meaning "to watch or keep vigil". It was important to have someone with the body, partly to protect from animals and other pests, as preservation methods weren't like they were today. As for this idea that "wake" derived from a belief that someone might wake up - NOT TRUE.

This idea of being mispronounced dead must be widley prevalent, with the belief that the term Dead Ringer comes from a string attached to a bell placed on a corpses foot or wrist that would ring if the person was really alive. This is another misnomer and is NOT TRUE. Dead Ringer is used to mean "exact duplicate", but what's the root of the words? Ringer was first used in the late 1800s to describe a horse used as a substitute to fool bookies and throw races. As for the word dead, well it does have more meanings than the cessation of life. Another meaning for dead is exact or precise, as in "he's a dead shot". So in this case the word dead ringer literally means exact duplicate.

Along those lines, people often think that the term Graveyard Shift comes from people actually sitting aroung waiting for one of those bells to ring indicating someone was buried alive. Again, NOT TRUE. There were caretakers for the grave sights, but their watchfulness was for grave robbers.

Here's an interesting one; Kick the Bucket. This is often thought to have roots from the idea that someone would stand on a bucket to hang themselves and need to kick the bucket out of the way at the end. NOT TRUE. The word bucket actually used to mean beam or yoke, to carry items/animals. In fact, when animals were hung to slaughter, the wood frame used was called the bucket. Often as the animals died, in their final spasm they'd quite litterally "kick the bucket".

Ever wonder about Six Feet Under ? Well this one is TRUE. We often use the phrase as a synonym for death. Most believe it comes from the practice of burying people six feet underground. But where did it orginate from? It seems like this one came from the time of the plague. The Lord Mayor of London set rules with the outbreak of the plague in 1665, stipulating that bodies must be burried six feet underground to reduce the spread of disease. Is this still true today? Absolutly not. Each state sets it's own rules now on minimum depth to bury. For example, in California, you only need 18 inches of dirt.
Let's conclude with the Tombstone. I was surprised to find that many believe the origin of the tombstone came from a fear of spirts/ghosts. In order to weigh the soul or ghost down, heavy stone markers were used...leading to the modern day tombstone. Sorry to say, this is NOT TRUE. The idea of marking a grave with stone actually appears early in the bible. In the very first book, Genesis 35:20, Jacob erects a memorial to his deceased wife in the form of a pillar. This idea of honoring the deceased with a marker of some sort in quite ancient and prevelent in most societies.

If you know of more quirky lore, please share. Otherwise it's up to us to set the story straight when we hear these urban legends.

4 Responses to “Euphemisms and Misnomers”

JerseyRN said...
December 8, 2008 at 5:52 PM

Wow, Amy, I guess I'm not alone in having people inch away from me at cocktail parties. Well looky this! It's time to freshen this drink!

Thanks for the new small talk fodder. Just in time for the holidays, too. : )

ChrisO said...
December 16, 2008 at 5:13 PM

Hi, While searching for online instructions on how to make a feather headpiece for a costume, I came across the fascinating custom of "Feather Death Crowns" which were found inside down feather pillows on which a person died. See for an example. Families that found the crown knew that their dearly beloved was on his or her way to heaven.

Christian Sinclair, MD said...
December 16, 2008 at 7:49 PM

Here is the link on Feather Death Crowns from ChrisO in clickable form.

Thanks for posting the info here ChrisO.

JerseyRN said...
March 16, 2011 at 11:53 PM

Wow, Amy, I guess I'm not alone in having people inch away from me at cocktail parties. Well looky this! It's time to freshen this drink!

Thanks for the new small talk fodder. Just in time for the holidays, too. : )